Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" (novella, robots, free): Some non-Asimovian robot laws

Quote from short story titled With Folded Hands by Jack WilliamsonWhile the robots in this very readable story are benign & do follow laws that can be easily expressed, the result is a dystopia. And no deliverance at end, just acceptance of robot supremacy!

In this interview with Larry McCaffery, author talks of other angles to the story. I could not reflect on these arguments, or even read the whole interview, because I'm posting this article rather late in the night! May be will go over it some time later & see if this post needs revisiting.

In this story, the robots "exist to discharge the Prime Directive". The Prime Directive is: "to serve and obey, and guard men from harm."

Not only are the laws governing the robots different from more carefully stated Asimovian laws, the process by which these robots come into being & the way they take charge is also different.

Asimov's robots are built by a large corporation, they develop their capability slowly over hundreds or thousands of years, they constantly come in contact with society at large & social feedback is incorporated, & most importantly, each Asimovian robot is an autonomous unit - so next one can have the old bugs fixed.

Robots in this story are built by a single heroic individual who is sick of society's inability to stop war. And he quickly builds robots smart enough to not only make more robots, but to make the next generation that is even more competent - sort of singularity in action.

And, they are centrally controlled. All the millions of robots spread across the stars are really one big brain on a heavily guarded planet that is barred to humans! It's from this central unit ("Humanoid Central") that individual robots derived both their intelligence & their motive power! The story is really about this single point of failure - because the central unit won't let itself be fixed!

Story summary.

One Mr Sledge is a resident of war torn human colony planet called "Wing IV", & "an instructor of atomic theory in a small technological college". He owns the basic patents on something called "rhodomagnetics" - "A universal force... As fundamental as ferromagnetism or gravitation, though the effects are less obvious... A rhodomagnetic component was proved essential to maintain the delicate equilibrium of the nuclear forces. Consequently, rhodomagnetic waves tuned to atomic frequencies may be used to upset that equilibrium and produce nuclear instability. Thus most heavy atoms - generally those above palladium, 46 in atomic number - can be subjected to artificial fission."

Sick of war, he decides to hand over the man's destiny to machines. Goes to a secluded war-ravaged place, & builds his first robots & a complex to power & control them.

All his robots have Prime Directive built in, with one exception - robots won't bother Mr Sledge unless he asks for their help. This exception will provide some excitement in the story, & finally will show the doom.

Only robots keep getting smarter. It's through an abortive attempt on his life in his robot complex that Sledge learns his robots are making people angry. More investigation proves general discontent on his home world. When he tries to fix Prime Directive, robots prevent him - that privilege wasn't included in his exception. Considering humanity a threat to their effort in executive the Prime Directive, robots ship all human residents of "Wing IV" to other worlds! Including their inventor, Sledge. And they guard their home world rather well.

But we learn of this via flashback - 50 years after the invention of these robots. Most of the story happens in a little town called "Two Rivers". A man named Underhill owns a small business dealing in "mechanicals" - "Androids, mechanoids, electronoids, automatoids, and ordinary robots". In this society, robots are commonly used as household servants - though they are far clumsier than human servants.

When returning home from work, he discovers a new business in town called "Two Rivers Agency". This is the new business setup by the robots of Mr Sledge! Fantastic robots that make everything else on the market look primitive. And they are well informed about the goings on in town too.

They offer their services to everyone - you pledge all your property to their organization, & they will serve you forever! Taking care of not only all your needs, but ensuring you don't come to harm (later is the one that causes most heartache). And trial services are free. Not accepting their offer is not an option - as Underhill discovers soon, when he is forced to wind up business & his wife accepts the trial service!

Trial robots rebuild their their home to something far more comfortable & with better materials. Replace doors that humans cannot open - but a robot is always at service! "windows that only a mechanical could open—a man might accidentally fall, or suicidally jump". Bar their entry to kitchen - you could hurt yourself! Remove most toys of kids, & replace them with plastic ones that cannot hurt! Remove the little workshop Underhill keeps at home! Bar automobile driving because humans can be careless! Even reading of novel, "because they dealt with unhappy people in dangerous situations". Elsewhere, "Most active sports were declared too dangerous for men... Science was forbidden, because laboratories can manufacture danger." Even suicide is not an option; robots know some people try it, & have taken precautions!

In this environment, some excitement is provided by Mr Sledge. He arrived in town penniless; Mrs Underhill took pity on him & lodged him in an outer room of their house. He is attempting to build a machine, in his room, using which he can remotely destroy the controlling planet of robots! Only, robots have taken precautions already! Turns out, robots allowed him the attack so they could learn some things they didn't already know!

In the end, Mr Sledge is very sick & frustrated, but his exception is preventing robots from helping him. That is when he gives up his privilege for health services. We next see him a happy man recovering on hospital bed - you see, robots have learned brain surgery to remove unhappy thoughts!

Collected in.

  1. Ben Bova (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A".

See also.

  1. Arthur Clarke's "The Next Tenants": A human has given up hope in humanity's future in the aftermath of World War II, & experimenting with termite colonies in a Pacific island as possible successors to humans!
  2. Eric Frank Russell's "Mechanistria": Similar robotic society in that it's also controlled centrally. But these are alien robots, to whom humans are biological laboratory specimen. Humans will escape by attacking this central power source.

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, July 1947.
Rating: A
Download MP3 audio from Listening Booth. (Caution: I haven't heard this audio version)
This story was expanded into a novel titled "The Humanoids" in 1949; there was also a sequel to this novel titled "The Humanoid Touch" in 1980. I haven't read either of these novels.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.


Rusty said...

This sounds like a very interesting story - one which I would like and will try to get my hands on. I am a huge fan of Asimov's Robot Novels, and found it interesting that this novel was written at approximately the same time as Asimov was starting his series. Aah - it would have been fun to be part of that Golden Age time! I have never read anything by Jack Williamson, but this looks like an excellent place to start. Thanks.

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