The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories


The Annual Meeting of the British Association was being held at Sheffield, and the learned members were assembled to hear the Presidential Address of Dr. Tilwin, who had shaken the foundations of scientific complacency at the Brighton gathering of the previous year, by casual allusion to the "two obvious fallacies in the theory of Relativity."

        He was too eminent a mathematician to be disregarded, and the scientific world had waited impatiently for a justification of the audacious challenge, which had appeared only a few weeks earlier, and concerning which none of the nine persons in England who professed (rightly or not) to understand the assaulted theory had yet ventured an opinion.

        Now it was hoped that the new President would use the occasion for a further elucidation of the startling heresy which he had put forward. Were they to be persuaded back to the childish levels of Newton, or led to unimagined heights of mathematical complexity?

        Even the popular belief that two and two make four might not be left unchallenged. All that is certain is that they have done so very frequently. The rule is not therefore proved to be invariable, nor, could it be shown that it has been so in the past, would it be a logical consequence that it must always be so in the future. . . .

        But Dr. Tilwin made no further assault upon Einstein's incomprehensible stronghold.

        He commenced, instead, to direct the attention of his audience to the results of modern scientific discoveries as they had materialised themselves in the changed conditions of human life, and then, more specifically, as they had developed the instruments of production and labour, first substituting inorganic for organic sources of energy, and then inorganic for organic media for its practical implement.

        The assembly listened at first with a somewhat tepid interest. They understood that the age of machinery was being eulogised, as an almost necessary complement to the occupations of the city in which they met, and they expected that the address would pass on to other more disputable or fruitful fields, but they stirred themselves with a quickened observation as their President continued to develop the topic he had commenced, and to conduct it, with unemotional logic, to its sombre end.

        "The earlier inventors of mechanical apparatus," he was now saying, "asserted confidently that their advantages to mankind would result in an increase of population, and this fallacy was supported, for a time, by the fact that large numbers were enabled to congregate in centres round which there was no sufficient area of fertile land to feed them.

        "Yet, even then, the writing was on the wall. Around these urban areas stretched mile after mile of green countryside on which a healthy peasantry shrank and dwindled as the powers of steam and petrol were substituted for that of human muscles. Gone were the merry crowds of the English hayfields, and the dead hands that had wielded the harvest-sickle had no descendants.

        "When it was found that the few who were left could not, under the new conditions, grow the food which was their only merchandise, in successful competition with the supplies of distant lands, their countrymen were indifferent. Let them starve or cease. War brought famine; and there was a short-lived reaction. Then the spectacle of a race destroying its most virile elements for a delusion of profit was resumed, and the declension continued.

        "It is true that the rapid disappearance of the horse was observed as a direct consequence of the substitution of inorganic for organic energy, but its significance was disregarded.

        "Even today, there may be few of us who have realised that it is not the horse alone which is destined to disappear before the advance of a higher energistic form - that we ourselves in a few generations - probably in a very few generations - are destined to follow. . . . Yet the process of our destruction has commenced already.

        "It is true that fears have been expressed lest the advance of knowledge should provide us with explosive substances, with bacterial cultures, or vaporous poisons, by which we might contrive our own annihilation. But it is difficult to suppose that an overruling Providence would permit our disappearance before we have fulfilled the high destiny of our evolution, and have occupied the earth with such a race of automata as will continue to function and to develop - to what ends we can only dimly imagine - without the need of our continued service.

        ". . . I have said that the process of our destruction has commenced already. Already preparing us to face not individual, but racial extinction without excessive protest, or too keen regret. The old ideal of the home is fading. The old superstition of the value or necessity of children is leaving, if it has not already left, our minds.

        "Our fathers thought no shame to let the plough-horse die, finding that the power of steam could be successfully substituted for a creature which had the pains and pleasures, the impulses and imperfections, of a sentient life. Our children think no shame to say that they will have a child the less that they may have an autocar the more. Some of the machines that we have designed already are employed in manufacturing appliances to frustrate the natural fertility of the race.

        "The day of the substitution of the machine for the human body is not a vision of the future, a speculation of the philosopher. It is already upon us.

        ". . . It is the control of motion which has first betrayed us. We constructed machines which would move our possessions. Then our machines commenced to manufacture, others which were adapted to move ourselves. The population of these machines has increased until they can be counted in millions; we are content to climb into them, and to be moved backwards and forwards continually, as gnats whirl in the sun.

        ". . . But, as yet, we may observe with some satisfaction that they are dependent upon our service. They cannot move unless we put the food into their bellies, and we can stop or turn them with a motion of our hand.

        "Yet how long can this balance of power continue? How long shall we be able to observe this pause of uncertainty, during which it may be hard to say whether the man exists for the machine, or the machine for the man?

        "Already, the tide is on the turn.

        "It is not only that automata have been constructed which, in clumsy, limited ways can perform some human actions, or produce some vocal sounds.

        "It is more significant that the number of men who are employed in every factory decreases as its machines become more numerous.

        "The capstan lathe may require a workman's individual attention. The automatic lathe is capable of great variety of independent operations, and a team of these, industriously occupied, may be content with the menial service of a single attendant.

        "The humility of science will hesitate to prophesy the detailed incidence of that which may be foreseen in its inevitable outline, but it may not be a too-rash guess that the industrial workman and the domestic servant will be the first to disappear from their places in the national life. Some few may remain for generations, even for centuries. But is it reasonable to suppose that the nation will continue altruistically to support the persons and families of industrial workers who are no longer needed? For themselves there may be some generous provision to avert the euthanasia which would be the evident economic expedient for the aged horse, or the dog of which a woman has grown tired, but would it be tolerable that we should allow the propagation of their useless children?

        "Or consider, how many would there be who would continue the employment of the domestic servant, idle, wasteful, dirty and unreliable as they too often are, merely that the population might not diminish, when there would be automatic substitutes available, which would not only be free from such faults, but would require no 'evenings out,' no annual increase of wages, and could be put away if the house were closed, without the continued supply of food or fuel? . . ."

        At this point Sir Ireton Mount had looked at the illustrious author of Sheerluck Soames, who was seated beside him. They shook their massive heads in a troubled wonder. Their colossal intellects told them that such developments were logical enough. But why had the spirits given no hint to their faithful servants? They went out to consult Pheneas.

        Bellorina was a woman of a weak sentimentality, which had caused her to expend the free allotment of seventeen major units of energy, which was the maturity-portion which every woman of the community was entitled to claim on allocation, in the erection of a personal home, modelled on the expiring traditions of the aborigines of the twentieth century. It was built of oblong red bricks, with a tiled and sloping roof. Its rooms were of irregular sizes, and were disfigured by many ingle-nooks, 'exposed' oak beams, and the remains of a bread-oven. It had a feeding-table and quaint crockery utensils, instead of the usual nutrition-pumps. Even the automata which waited upon her were of the oldest patterns, finished in imitation of the living maidservants of that remote period to which her mind reverted. The outside of the house was patched with flowers and shorn grass, and groups of senseless, insanitary trees. Appropriately enough after what she knew to be the way of the ultra-aesthetic Georgians, she had called it Daisy Villa.

        Today, Bellorina had invited three female acquaintances, who, like herself, were not on the mating-lists of the week, to join her at an 'afternoon tea' so that the illusion of savagery might be completely realised.

        They were all allocated women, with a full knowledge of life, and sure to talk freely and scandalously when they got together.

        Bora-Ann came a few minutes before the others, as the dignity of her suffix required, and waited without complaint when the door (which should have opened in response to the secret word of invitation spoken in F sharp), remained closed till she had pressed the push, and an automaton, dressed in black, with a white apron and cap, had promptly responded.

        She did not falter in her courteous approbation, even when a child, with the appearance of a girl of five or six years, met her in the hall, and held out a timid hand, saying: "Good afternoon, Mrs. Bora-Ann," in a shy Georgian voice. She did not know what 'Mrs.' meant, for the folly of studying past history was no longer general, but she understood that this was the sort of thing which was supposed to happen in the old barbarous days, and she stooped good-humouredly for the small lifted arms to go round her neck, and kissed the soft cheek kindly.

        The queer little room was windowed, but a loggia reduced its light, and an obsolete electric bulb glowed from the ceiling, for it was winter twilight without. The corners of the room were in shadow, and Bora-Ann, who had never known an actual darkness, controlled her fear with some difficulty, as she fitted herself, with commendable agility, into the wicker-chair which her hostess indicated for her reception.

        "How sweet everything is," she said kindly, "It was almost like a real flesh-child in the hall . . . !" Then her voice changed to a half-fearful excited note, as the thought came: "It wasn't a real flesh-child, was it?"

        The question remained unanswered for a moment, for Mira and Scarletta came in together, and chairs had to be drawn out, and their uses indicated; then Bellorina answered, with a laugh which was not free from embarrassment: "Oh, no; I'm not quite so mad as that. . . . Not in the hall, anyway. You couldn't tell what would happen. But it's a very good imitation. I've got two, really. They can say almost anything, and are never seriously disobedient. They oil themselves, and charge each other's batteries at bedtime. They're really no trouble at all."

        "I was speaking to someone yesterday," said Mira, who was always indefinite as to her sources of information, "who told me that the man she had last week told her that he had had a woman the week before who told him that she knew a woman - I can't be sure, but I believe it's that blue-banded scratch-cat at Pity-Rise. It couldn't be anyone else in our country. They say she's so coarse that she had the same man twice in one year when the lists were altered - I told Biltie last night that I'm sure it's she, and Biltie told Agra-Ann this morning that he knows it for a fact - who had a flesh-child five years ago, and the woman said she believes it's still there."

        "I daresay it's true enough," said Scarletta, hopefully. "They say that flesh-children are almost common in some parts of Italy. I don't think that anyone has more than one, and, of course, they have two or three automata for them to play with. But it's an endless trouble to all concerned. Flesh-children are dirty things, and they won't keep the same size, and sometimes they die altogether. They say you can't imagine what has to be done for them the first year or two, to keep them going at all. I suppose there have to be a few somewhere, but it's hard to think that a decent woman would have one."

        "It isn't only the coarseness of it," Mira answered. "It's difficult to understand any woman being so silly. The automata make each other so well now, that there's no excuse for anyone messing with a flesh-child. Since the mathematicians perfected the law of the Automatic Balance of Deviation. . . ."

        "I don't understand mathematics," her hostess interposed, "and I know Scarletta hates them. Of course, Bora-Ann . . ." she smiled deferentially at the woman whose suffix placed her among the intellectual aristocracy of her time - "but there isn't any real need for us humans to worry about such things now, is there? Sartie told me that the automata can work out problems that no man could possibly even attempt. He says it's because they're not distracted with feelings and jealousies, and help each other instead of quarrelling. And they don't get tired, and make mistakes. Sartie says we shan't be needed much longer, even to make them. . . . Of course, evolution's right enough, and I know I'm silly, but it all seems rather dreadful to me. I wish I'd got a body that lasts, or could have a new valve when the old one wears out. And . . . I know you'll laugh at me, but I almost wish I'd got a flesh-child, or even two. The automata are both very sweet and loving, and they're no trouble at all, but it must be rather fun to watch them change as they grow, and . . . to comfort them when they cry."

        Bora-Ann moved uneasily. She was a guest, and she would be sorry to hear anything which might involve report and repression. She resisted an inclination to change the subject. She felt that it would be cowardly to do so. Such a position should be handled kindly, but firmly.

        "I don't think," she answered, "that you quite realise what you say. The unhealthy atmosphere in which we are sitting may go far to explain it. But you are right that the automata can solve problems which are far beyond the capacity of the human mind, and some of the newest are so constructed that they can themselves design any machine which is needed to carry out their own conceptions. . . . There is a difference between the greatest man and the simplest machine which can never be bridged, and our highest wisdom is to observe it with reverence and humility. It is not a difference in degree, but in kind. We act from confused and contradictory impulses, but they with the inevitability of universal law. In a word, we are human and they divine."

        She made the sacred sign as she said it, and observed with satisfaction that the hand of her hostess was lifted also. It was, at least, no house of open blasphemy into which she had entered. . . . But she resolved that a suggestion which she had intended to make should remain unspoken. It had been calculated that twenty human attendants would be required by their masters for certain menial offices in the next generation, for which provision had not yet been made, and she had been commissioned to obtain twenty women volunteers to produce them. She had thought of Bellorina at once as one who would be less likely than most of her acquaintances to resent the indignity of such a proposal. But she was a woman of religious mind, and she saw that Bellorina was morally unfit for such a motherhood. She turned the subject adroitly by remarking that the Bliskie trial would commence on Tuesday.

        "I don't believe he did it on purpose," Scarletta started at once, "I think it's a shame to try him. I know I should make mistakes continually."

        "It was bad enough for Corinna, anyway," said Mira, "you can't expect her not to complain. If you were put into the wrong operating machine, and found you'd left half your thyroid behind when you only wanted a cancer taken out of your liver - ''

        "Well, he says he forgot the numbers of the machines, for a moment. He'd never made a mistake before in over twenty years," Scarletta persisted.

        ''But you know they say that he'd quarrelled with Corinna the week before, and she had said she knew he'd play her some trick before she entered," Bellorina felt it only fair to remind her.

        "It all shows the importance of eliminating the human element," said Bora-Ann, who saw it to be a lesson which her companions needed. "A machine is not merely incapable of a spiteful action, it is so far above it that the very suspicion would be an absurdity; nor could it make such a mistake as the man suggests in his own defence - if such it can be called. To my mind it condemns him more utterly than if he admitted the accusation. But I believe that a proper automaton is already being designed to replace him, so that we need have no fear for ourselves in future."

        Bellorina sighed silently. She knew that it was wrong to doubt, and she was really sorry for the misadventure of Corina's thyroid. She realised the defects of her race. If only she had the intellect of Bora-Ann, no doubt it would be easier to believe. . . . After all, she had the prettiest hair in the Thames Valley, or so Gartie had told her. . . . And Gartie would be hers for a week from next Tuesday. . . . In the end, what matters? . . . She became aware that her thoughts had wandered, and her guests were rising. "Must you really go?" she was saying.

        It may be that nothing does.

        The last - the nameless last - of a dying race, the man sat before his drawing-board, idly fingering his compasses, forgetful of the uncompleted task which the overseer had set him, while his ageing mind went backward.

        He might be the last of his kind . . . he knew that it was a sign of weakness to regret it. The fact that his mind was wandering now was a sign of his inferiority to the busy mechanisms around him. His mind was lawless and unstable in a Universe in which law and order were supreme and final.

        There were some men who had seen this, even in the crude beginnings of the age of machinery. They had taught that everything is controlled at last by Natural Laws which are both blind and inflexible.

        Men had foolishly imagined an ultimate supremacy of their own blundering bodies - even, in their incredible egotism, they had postulated an anthropomorphic God.

        Yet, in a Universe where law and order rule, the precision of the machine - even of the earliest and crudest constructions - must have been superior - in greater harmony with their environment - than were bodies so clumsily constructed that they cannot be trusted to repeat the simplest operations with exactitude of time or movement. Bodies easy to break, difficult to control or repair.

        Dimly they had seen, even then, in a Universe which is itself a machine, working by mathematical, unchanging law, the absurdity of an emotional anthropomorphic God.

        Yet they had not seen far ahead, at the first.

        The steam-plough came, and the petrol-drawn car, and the horse died out to make place for these mechanisms. Few men had realised that the doom of their own race was logically foreshadowed, and that nothing could save them but a war sufficiently disastrous to destroy the world's machinery and the conditions which could reproduce it.

        But such wars as came had only resulted in the subjection of the backward tribes who had not learnt the new worship. The industrial worker had disappeared before the pressure of economic law; the domestic servant before the dictates of fashion. Even in the earliest days the new worship had been established, although it was not then recognised that a new and higher faith had superseded the old superstitions. When the new Moloch called for blood-sacrifice it had been paid without protest or regret, though it would not have been easily satisfied. It sucked blood very greedily, not of single sacrifices, as on the Hittite altars of old, but the blood of thousands. When it was thought that a system of one-way traffic might be conducive to its speed and comfort, the blood of an extra hundred of Londoners had not been grudged to the trial, though their deaths had been foreseen and fore-calculated.

        Ships had already been manipulated without crews, and aeroplanes controlled without pilots, and where the helmsman had gone the chauffeur had very quickly followed.

        Of course, there had been anger - protest - rebellion. There had been populations, particularly in some of the old urban areas, that had persisted in the production of useless unsanitary children. But such revolt had been futile. The machines had been invincible, and the men who fought beside them had shared their triumph. Even those early machines, directed and controlled by the men that made them, had been irresistible. They had not cried out when they were hurt, they had not slept when on duty. They belonged to a higher natural order than mankind.

        . . . Soon it would be a world of machines from which the memory of mankind had died. He did not know that he was the last man living. How should he? But he knew that the last of human births was behind him.

        A world of machines - to his feeble, futile brain it seemed lacking in purpose. Yet he knew, as his ancestors had perceived, that the Universe is without consciousness. Scientists had realised, even then, that sentient life is a sporadic outbreak, which, if it had ever occurred, or will do so, elsewhere, is almost incredibly remote and occasional, a mere outbreak of cheese-mites, a speck of irritation, a moment's skin-disease on the healthy body of a Universe of never-changing law.

        . . . He remembered the Crawlers. They had been no larger than a man. Their smooth skins had been impenetrable to anything less than a high-explosive shell. Their mandibles were a 20 h.p. vice, yet so softly padded, so gradual in operation, that they could be trusted to strangle the throat they seized without breaking the skin, and to loose it when pulsation ceased, and they had fulfilled their purpose. A dozen of these let loose in the rebellious slums had soon checked their foolish fecundity. Then there had been . . . but his mind turned from the thought. They had been rather horrible in their operations - but effectual, as machines are.

        The hypnotic method by which the Eastern races had been led to destroy themselves to the accompaniment of their own laughter had been a pleasanter thing to watch.

        Deus ex machina - the human race had always had a subconscious knowledge of its deficiency. It was shown in their clumsy efforts at patterning: in their desire for repetitions of any kind: by the way in which they would snap and worry at anyone who deviated in word or garment: or in the stubborn continuation of a custom after need and meaning had left it.

        But the time of rebellion had passed, and resignation had followed. Resignation - and worship.

        Worship had been gradual in its growth, but inevitable. Even in the early days of the twentieth century men had stood in silent adoration around the machines that had self-produced a newspaper or a needle. . . . And at that time they could no more have conceived what was to follow when the first ape that drew the sheltering branches together could foresee the dim magnificence of a cathedral dome.

        But even then they were displacing the anthropomorphic God, and preparing for the occupation of a vacant throne. . . .

        He wakened guiltily from his wandering thoughts as the bell rang that announced the coming of the messenger that would collect the work of the day. . . . Only five of the six drawings were ready. He did not know what would follow. Would they scrap him in consequence? He knew that he had been quite safe so long as he had been regular in his habits, and exact in his work.

        It was all law now - blind law. No emotion: no injustice: no caprices. Had the intricate evolutions of self-designing machinery provided for this unprecedented failure?

        . . . He became aware that the collector was standing beside him. It would not wait. Starting hurriedly, he dropped the folded sheets into the slot that opened to take them. One - two - three - four - five -

        The collector paused for a moment longer, giving time enough for the sixth sheet to follow. A wild and impious thought leapt in the brain of the delinquent. Might he not drop a blank sheet into the slot? When and how would the error be discovered? What confusion would result? Had he done so, it may be that the tiny cause would have spread disaster and chaos in that ordered world, and it might have fallen in fragments, to be rebuilt by the patient forces of evolution through succeeding eons. It is more probable that such a contingency had already been discounted by the inhuman powers which were at work around him. But had he been capable of such an action, he saw, even as he thought it, that it would be impossible. There was no time to fold the empty sheet before the automaton, after a second of human-seeming hesitation, had passed on, and was making its collection from the workers further along the bench.

        He knew that he ought to move . . . he knew that the oiler would be here in a few minutes to caress and comfort the joints and bearings of his companions. . . . Yet he sat still, wondering. . . . The door opened, and an automaton entered. It was one of those which still bore a vague resemblance to humanity, the pattern of the first designers not having been entirely abandoned. It was thus that the human race might leave the impress of its passing flicker of life for a million years - perhaps for ever - as a mollusc may leave its fossil imprint in the enduring rock.

        It came quietly up to the nameless relic of the human race, and took his arm in a grip that was sufficient, but without violence.

        He shuddered inwardly, remembering the fate of those who had rebelled in his early childhood, and who had been given in sacrifice by their fellowman to the offended deities.

        He remembered their screams as they had fallen among the machines that they had blasphemed so foolishly.

        But he did not dream of rebellion. Evolution had triumphed. Side by side, they went out together.

*        *        *        *        *

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