Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Machine Man of Ardathia by by Francis Flagg

First published in Amazing Stories, November 1987

If you thought transhumanism and the singularity were new ideas, think again! 1927 is the year that that Fritz Lang released Metropolis, Charles Lindberg made his first tarns-Atlantic flight and The Jazz Singer came out in the cinemas. Radio was still radical and new, and even evolution was a relatively novel - and dangerous  - concept. But SF writers were already imagining the creature that these two new and forces could bring about and the consequences of such a profound change.

While studying, the narrator suddenly sits up from his desk to see a bizarre apparition before him: a shrivelled human form encased in a mechanical cylinder. Glass and metal tubes ‘run at places into the body’ apparently sustaining it’s life. It claims to be from 28,000 years in the future and appeared in the narrator’s study by accident while travelling in time on a study trip elsewhen. 

It’s hard to imagine how extraordinary this idea must have felt to the readership at the time. A plausible demon or angel – not really either, but a man as unlike the man of today as the caveman was from the pulp-reading classes of the USA.
Poor prehistoric mammal, how could you, groping in the dawn of human existence, comprehend what is beyond your lowly environment! Compared to you, we are as gods.
Thousands of years of evolution don’t appear to have improved humanity’s manners. Perhaps the consequence of merging with its tools has made humanity a bit of a tool in the process.

For some reason this one starts with the narrator reading a copy of Engel’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Before the Machine Man appears, he had been intending to ‘make a few notes from Engel’s work relative to plural marriages.’ I’m not entirely sure what Engel’s does have to say on the topic. From what I can gather from wikipedia and obscure academic papers that turn up in a google search, it’s probably a bad thing that maintains bourgeois property rights.

I wonder if Flagg’s making a subtle dig at Marxism here. Maybe the Machine Man is the product not of technology and evolution, but technology and Marxism. After all 28,000 years is pretty small beer in evolutionary terms but is perhaps enough for the emergence of the ‘workers paradise’ imagined by Marx and Engles.

The story has it’s own ‘end of hsitory’ moment that brings to mind Marxist rhetoric. The Ardathians themselves consider anything before the Bi-Chanic era, fifteen thousand years before their own day as prehistory, lost in the mists of time. It’s like the singularity, a point in history that occludes historical insight – old fashioned humanity can no longer comprehend ascended humanity, but ascended humanity can equally not fully comprehend the character of primitive man.

Flagg doesn’t seem much impressed by the idea.
At last I began to get an inkling of what the Ardathian meant when it alluded to itself as a Machine man. The appalling story of man’s final evolution into a controlling centre that directed a mechanical body, awoke something akin to fear in my heart. If it were true, what of the soul, the spirit...?
Like The Coming of theIce, this story also focuses on the chief draw back of being super-human:
What joy can there in existence for you? You have no sex; you cannot mate. It seems to me that no hell could be worse than being caged alive inside that thing.
The story doesn’t really go anywhere beyond this. When the narrator’s journalist friend arrives, the Machine man promptly disappears before any witnesses can corroborate the story. It’s tailed by a larky epilogue of the ‘it could all be true!’ variety, but it’s thin stuff. The bulk of this story is good fun as the narrator and the Machine Man swap barbs, and the epilogue is at least very short. I suppose Flagg either had no idea what to do with the idea, or just wanted to indulge the bizarre dialogue and then get out.

Would such a weak plot get through today’s slush-pile? I wonder!

Themes: transhumanism, singularity, vastness (gulfs of time), asexuality, futuristic dystopia, soulless technology

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