Sunday, February 10, 2008

Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "Two-Handed Engine" (short story, science fiction): The idea of "sin" has survival value!

Quote from short story titled Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner and C L MooreWhile this hominid robot story deals with many issues - some of them still popular in contemporary sf - the official moral of the story is: humans would be dead meat without the idea of sin. But author is not talking of sin in a religious sense: it's more in the sense of feeling guilty when you know you've done something wrong.

It's a dark future dystopia story, with a hint of looming revival near end.

Title is part of some poem by Milton, & means a hominid robot.


In a future society with a lot of robots, past wars have destroyed any feeling of human community. Even the idea of family is dead. Everyone is alone.

For a while, we get a sort of materialistic utopia. Machines take care of everything. Humans don't really have to work; in fact, most spend (waste?) their time on "Escape Machines". With idea of families dead, birth rate is down to alarming levels. "Man as a species was on the way out." A parallel society of robots takes care of everything.

A smart unnamed human sees the decline. He programs the worldwide network of robots with a new goal: "Mankind must be made self-responsible again. You will make this your only goal until you achieve the end."

To enable this, robots have withdrawn all their rewards. While they still run the only government in this society of dull men, you now have to earn you keep by doing productive work. Time is sometime in twenty-second century.

To this administration of robots, there is only one crime humans can commit: murder of another human. It carries exemplary punishment. There is a trial & judgment - but only among computers. Humans only learn about it after the punishment is meted out: You get a "Fury" (plural "Furies") assigned. There is no appeal, & generally a belief among humans that these computer administrators are infallible & incorruptible - this assumption will be challenged by the story, via a computer hacker!

What is "Fury"? It's a big steel hominid robot (of title) that acts a jailer, jail, & executioner. After committing the murder, you go about your normal work - knowing full well you will be punished. Once computers have pronounced you guilty, a Fury is assigned to you. It will tail you for an unspecified amount of time - you are never again going to be alone, not even when asleep. It will prevent you from committing another murder, but otherwise it just stays with you - without restricting where you can go. Then one fine day, it will kill you! You live with the monster knowing well the death is coming, but not when or how.

Author mentions inspiration for main plot idea - murderer haunted by a Fury: "Orestes hounded in modern dress from Argos to Athens with a ... robot Fury at his heels instead of ... Erinyes of legend". I'm not familiar with the relevant Greek legend.

There is also a comparison with "a Crusoe with a Friday at his heels" - something that didn't mean anything to me, but may be familiar to Western readers.

Story summary.

Danner is a man in whose lifetime the transition from "Escape Machines" to earn-your-keep has happened. And he resents it.

One fine day, he gets an opportunity to grow rich. Hartz, number two, & a computer programmer, with the authority that maintains this big network of computers & robots (yes, humans do it!!) wants the top job. To this end, he will get his boss - "O'Reilly, Controller of the Calculators" murdered! He hires Danner as assassin.

Initially, Danner is not interested - since this administration of computers guarantees getting caught & punished. Hartz convinces he has a way of hacking into the system that can take the Fury off anyone - basically by wiping out crime data.

After Danner kills the boss & Hartz succeeds, Danner gets his money. And Fury. But Hartz won't take the Fury off! Only killing is crime, not hiring an assassin - in the eyes of computers. Of course the computers know about the role of Hartz, but he is not a criminal!

Eventually, Danner will go for revenge. He barges into the office of Hartz, & is stopped by his Fury from killing Hartz. But Hartz also keeps a gun - during Danner's attempt, Hartz actually ended up shooting & killing Danner - in the presence of Fury. So he is now guilty of murder, according to computers!

Hartz is able to avoid punishment by wiping out records of his killing from computer systems. But now he begins having doubts on the machines that run his society: "Mankind's survival still depended on the computers, and the computers could not be trusted." He himself had corrupted the machines.

He will end up feeling guilty over the whole affair, & be haunted by a phantom Fury! "It was as if sin had come anew into the world, and the first man felt again the first inward guilt. So the computers had not failed, after all."


  1. Story talks of analog computers & some other stuff that is now archaic. But it doesn't come in the way of the story.

See also.

  1. Greg Egan's "Steve Fever": Another story where a man has programmed an army of robots on an impossible mission, & robots have to make their own decisions - including make other people do their bidding.
  2. All stories by Henry Kuttner & C L Moore.

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of Henry Kuttner"

Fact sheet.

"Two-Handed Engine", short story, review
First published: F&SF, August 1955.
Rating: B


Anonymous said...

you can familiarize yourself with what you don't understand. use the google.

Tinkoo said...

Yes, but you need to be interested in arcane literature!