Saturday, February 16, 2008

Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Proud Robot" (short story, science fiction): A robot in love with itself

Quote from short story titled The Proud Robot by Henry Kuttner and C L MooreApart from great entertainment, this hilarious story touches upon issues that are still relevant: frivolous patents to curtail competition, unconventional ways of distributing video that both annoys the content owners & hurts their bottomlines, & DRM (yes - DRM in a 1943 story!). While its technology is unrecognizable today, some of the issues remain relevant.

But the best part of the story is humor - story to be read with suspended credulity.

Corporate fight.

The story is set substantially later than 1980 in New York city. This is a world where movie theaters have all shut down. People prefer watching TV at home. Broadcasters hand out TV sets for free, but charge based on number of hours the set is tuned in.

Two big operators are Vox-View Pictures, owned by Harrison Brock, & Sonatone Television Amusement Corp, owned by Ella Tone. The story is about their corporate fight - because Sontatone has invented a new device called "Magna enlarger" that changes the market dynamics, hurting Vox-View. Sontatone has also taken enough patents on the device to ensure the competition just cannot build a competitive device!

What does Magna do? It takes the incoming broadcast, & makes it suitable for viewing on large screen. Sonatone have (re)opened a lot of movie theaters - all powered by Magna. Expensive ones show feeds of Sonatone, cheap ones show feeds of Vox-View. Of course, Vox-View doesn't get any share from theater earnings of its feed.

There is a part that probably involves suspension of belief because of the age of the story. Watching broadcast on large screen in a cinema house has become fashionable, & Vox-View customers have been canceling their subscriptions - adding to its vows.

And Sonatone has enough political connections that a court case will likely be lost. Vox-View needs a technical solution that doesn't violate Magna patents. It will eventually end up inventing DRM. But for that, we need to introduce Gallegher - an eccentric drunkard, but a brilliant inventor.

But wait a moment. There is an irrelevant romantic thread behind this corporate competition. James, Ella's son, wants to marry Patsy, Harrison's daughter. And she is not interested. Hence the pressure tactic. But the story would still be the same without this marriage talk.

The complication.

Harrison had hired Gallegher to work out a technical solution - at a time when Gallegher was in a drunken state. When the story opens, Gallegher is just sobering up. And finds himself in company of this no-good narcissist robot Joe. He has a vague recollection he built the robot for some purpose, but cannot recollect why!

This is the state where he gets a visit from Harrison, reminding him of the project. He will also get another visitor - Kennicott, from whom Gallegher had recently purchased some diamonds. Powdered form of those diamonds has apparently ended up inside Joe! Kennicott wants his payment - $12,000. Gallegher makes a promise & goes out to understand the project.

While at Vox-View office, he will get a visit from Joe. How did Joe come to know he was there? Following dialog fragment enlightens us:

"How'd you know where to reach me?"
"I vastened you," the robot said... "I vastened you were at the Vox-View studios, with Patsy Brock."
"What's vastened?" Gallegher wanted to know.
"It's a sense I've got. You've nothing remotely like it, so I can't describe it to you. It's like a combination of sagrazi and prescience."
"Oh, you don't have sagrazi, either..."

Anyway, Joe has come to inform Gallegher that Gallegher is now working for Sonatone rather than Vox-View!! "when Ella and James Tone came to the laboratory, ... I hypnotized them," Joe explained. "I made them think I was you. ... I signed the contract - it's your signature, by the way..."

Why did Joe do this? "they offered a hundred thousand, and two thousand a week for five years. But I merely wanted enough to pay Kennicott and make sure he wouldn't come back and bother me." You see, he didn't like Kennicott!

There will be a court case, but Gallegher cannot come out free because Joe is refusing to cooperate.

The resolution.

Dejected, at home, Gallegher will eventually make Joe hypnotize himself. Because that way, Joe can perhaps appreciate hidden parts of his beauty - accessible only via his subconscious! It's during this state that robot will tell Gallegher why he was created: "You were drinking beer, ... You had trouble with the can opener. You said you were going to build a bigger and better can opener. That's me." OK - so we know Joe is a can opener!!

Turns out - this revelation of purpose to Gallegher has taken away Joe's volition; he must now do what he is ordered. We will be told that the solution to Vox-View's problem is built into Joe: "You made me capable of a certain subsonic tone that Brock must broadcast at irregular time intervals over his televiews".

We are told humans cannot feel these subsonics at audio amplification at homes, but the response at a bootleg theater's volume is different: "They can be felt as a faint, irrational uneasiness at first, which mounts to a blind, meaningless panic."

Soon, bootleg theaters will lose their audience. And, by association, the expensive Sonatone theaters showing their own feed too will lose their customers. Heroes win!

See also.

  1. Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "Vintage Season": Another story that makes use of a device to create subsonics to create a sense of terror in people.

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of Henry Kuttner".
  2. Raymond J Healy & J Francis McComas (Eds)' "Adventures in Time and Space".
  3. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 5 (1943)".

Fact sheet.

"The Proud Robot", short story, review
This story has also been published as by Lewis Padgett, joint pseudonym of the two authors.
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, October 1943.
Rating: A
Related: All stories by Henry Kuttner, C L Moore & as Lewis Padgett.