Monday, 1 July 2013

Almost Human by Robert Bloch

First published in Fantastic Adventures, July 1943.

Robots make great subjects for thought experiments. Their naïve rationalism is a sharp light to shine on non-linear human doings, serving to highlight the way that humans rationalise away the contradictions of supposedly rational society. It’s no surprise that the most memorable character in I,Robot is the chilly, calculating Dr Susan Calvin.

With Almost Human, Robots make their first appearance in this series, but not in the shape of one of the famous Asimov stories was publishing at the same time this came out. I would guess, however, that these stories are sufficiently well-known to make inclusion here a bit unnecessary.

Instead get this neat little tale from Robert Bloch. It’s an interesting contrast – Bloch is a horror writer by inclination, and so this story has a far darker side.

In this story, Junior is the creation of kindly but naïve Professor Blasserman, formerly of Basel, Zurich, Prague and Vienna and now washed up in the land of the free. Junior has a simulated mechanical/chemical brain and the Professor believes he can teach it to be intelligent by bringing it up like a child. I’m sure there’s a name for this sort of thing. It’s the kind of idea you see items about it on popular science shows sometimes – donkey-jacketed boffins waving flash cards at Meccano-set robots connected to huge 1980s mainframes.

Professor Blasserman finds himself the victim of the hoodlum Duke and his girlfriend Lola, who he hired to be Junior’s nurse maid before she betrayed him. When Duke looks at Junior he sees an asset: Junior is bullet proof, incredibly strong and - best of all – easily manipulated.
Duke’s secret lessons were bearing fruit. Junior was wise beyond his years.

Now Junior wrote upon the blackboard in his hidden nursery chamber, and the inscrutable mechanism, in his chemical, mechanically-controlled brain guided his steel fingers as he traced the awkward scrawls.

‘My name is Junior,’ he wrote. ‘I can shoot a gun. The gun will kill. I like to kill. I hate the Professor. I will kill the Professor.’
Duke’s slick talk quickly turns the robot’s head, and the Professor is soon despatched in a suitably blood-curdling scene. The three go on a crime spree, with Junior the unkillable robot making a name for itself in the underworld. Shortly, things are getting hot and Duke decides it’s time to ditch the robot make a run for it to Mexico. However, Junior has other ideas. There’s a particularly grim finish, not entirely surprising but delivered with relish by Bloch.

Unlike Asimovs intellectual problem stories, this is a morality tale. We don’t learn anything about how the invention of a robot might be changing the world, there’s no sign of concerted research efforts by groups of academics or related technology. Instead, there’s just Professor Glasserman with his spurious pulp mad scientist reasons to keep his discovery secret.

This story uses is using the SF gloss to lend credibility to a fable. Duke falls for the oldest trick in the book and unleashes a power he can’t control. To use it for evil was always going to rebound somehow, it doesn’t matter if the robot’s a genie, a golem or an elf.

As with many other SF tales this is, stylistically at least a naturalistic tale. Bloch is particularly deft at the hard boiled dialogue and Duke and Lola are a familiar pair of small-time hoods. There’s no fairy tale flourishes here and the archetypes are well-hidden beneath more contemporary types. But this type of fantasy story existed long before SF came along, and will keep going for a long time after.

Themes: karma, robots, gangsters and molls, eccentric mittel-European genius, and the moral is...

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