frivolous and lengthy fictionoid (was: Re: Teleworking etc)

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Mon Apr 17 2000 - 05:49:47 MDT

At 03:13 PM 17/04/00 +1000, Emlyn wrote:

>The idea of sending your robot off to work to tap at a computer keyboard is
>ridiculous (and so will probably happen somewhere)

Don't be too hasty.

S W E E T, S A V A G E R O B O T

On a certain morning, a robot named Bruce Diode sat at breakfast with his
wife Sally.
        They were not a happy couple.
        Across the entire Milky Way, each day of your life, beings plight their
troth, break their hearts, howl methane tears, twist their soaked lace
hankies, smurge and make up, and generally end by loodling one another
under cover (as it might be) of the Great Whistling Moon's descent.
        This is true even on Alpha Grommett, the sole known world inhabited by
        Nothing animate stirs there, not even a mouse. Mice were the first to go
on Alpha Grommett, which was infested by the descendants of a single better
mousetrap left behind by a careless visitor.
        Did I say 'nothing animate'? Not strictly true. Since 1937, a stocky green
lizard from Gamma Globulin has held an important post with the principal
newspaper in the capital city, Rock-Breaks-Scissors.
        Few know her true name. Fewer still realize that their favourite daily
columnist is organic.
        Machines bleed, of course, in their fashion. Lubricating pumps break with
unrequited love. Passion as well as Boolean logic seethes within anodised
chests. Murders and deeds of wild romance are done at lust's behest.
        Yet somehow mechanisms simply never rise to the empathy required of an
advice columnist. Only an organic intelligence can pen a solid Miss
Lonely-Hearts column.
        On Alpha Grommett, therefore, a retired upper-middle class reptile named
Mrs Emilia Aardwimble reigns as the Heart-Balm queen for a whole world of
tortured mechanisms.
        "I may be an old fool," observed Mr Diode, at breakfast. "You are a frowdy
old fool."
        He spooned graphite, holding open his novel with a second elbow and
slurping light lubricant from a can held in a third. Between spoonfuls he
expertly ground, polished and inserted a fresh lens in his hind optic.
        Habit had long since worn the edge from Mrs Diode's indignation.
"Sometimes I wonder why I ever married--"
        "--an insensitive brute like you," Bruce Diode intoned with her, attention
fixed on his book, lost in a glamorous if dangerous world of sharp crims
and tough PIs.
        Sally Diode sighed and folded the morning paper to her favourite column.
        "You should be glad anyone married you," Bruce said absently, varying the
formula. His hand touched the discharge tube, guided it to his ventral
valve, clicked it in.
        Flooding through the dome, the brilliant X-rays of Alpha Grommett's sun
glazed his cabinet. Bruce Diode resembled a treadle-driven Singer sewing
machine, with random additions from tasteless Japanese war toys, set on
four fat little worn wheels.
        His wife Sally looked more like an Art Deco radio set, the kind that glows
like burnished wood and smells like hot Bakelite as it warms up, with a
dial yellow and soothing as the purr of a tabbycat, station-call
designations lettered beautifully on the illuminated half-circle of the
dial and big chunky knobs to control sound and tone.
        "Bruce! That's what Meg Kindheart says here to 'Fed Up'."
        The tabloid, open at For the Love-Lorn, fell with the snapping sound of
abruptly folded paper. She studied her rusting husband intently.
        "Let's have no more from that damned fool creature," Bruce said sharply.
Though his vexation derived principally from Sally's disregard of breakfast
tradition, it was also true that if there was one thing he loathed above
all others, it was parlour psychology.
        "Self-taught drivel," he sneered. "She should be deactivated for
practicing witchcraft without a licence."
        "Really, Bruce!" Sally was secretly glad of a break in their normative
programming. "Meg Kindheart is the most sensible machine in the world."
        "A lot you'd know about 'sense'."
        Mrs Diode crackled a circuit breaker in a marked manner. "It's a pity
there aren't more machines that show an interest in others."
        "The office cleaning-bug probably writes her rubbish." That stung. "If
it's not some rusted-out old derrick that missed her chance fifty years
ago." He clapped his hat on. "There's no one like a non-replicating
artifact to make free with advice."
        The numbers on Sally's dial bleached. Her manipulators opened and closed
        "You -- you old bucket!" she screamed, and fled from the room.
        Bruce Diode sighed angrily as the door slammed, and spun his optic back to
the clock. With a curse he found he was late. He scraped paint from his
blower as he coupled to the traction.
        Sally, for her part, winced at the crash of the traction's gears. Bruce
was in a particularly unpleasant mood. Sighing, she returned to the lube
bench and gathered the nozzles together. She consulted her own internal
clock. He would be late for work. Sally flung the nozzles into the cleaning
unit. Why did he have to go on like that? It hadn't been this way when
they were first married.
        Self-pity dopplered through her. She picked up the paper and finished Meg
        The nozzles popped up shining and clean, and the emptiness of her life
assailed her with crushing force.
        Every day, the same recursive routine. She'd become a drudge! Angrily, she
damped her overload. What right did Bruce have to destroy her dreams? He
didn't love her any more, that was certain. All he ever thought about was
his stupid trashy novels, his policemen and secret agents and steely PIs.
        An awful possibility popped up into her temporary cache memory. Could
Bruce be having an affair with some letter-quality job in the office? Some
fast, two-directional operator?
        A megabyte of ghastly, lurid bit-mapped images cascaded through her high
core. It didn't bear thinking about. Sally bent over the bench and gave
herself up to her misery and shame.
        Soon enough, her outburst ran its course. She re-booted, rolled to a
mirror, regarded her artful if dated cabinet, the warm vacuum-tube glow at
the back of her yellow dial.
        "I'm not that old," she muttered. "Nowhere near the scrap heap, dash it."
A fierce determination glowed in her deepest circuits. "I'll put a spoke in
his wheel," she told her image.
        But as her optics swung past the side-panels of the mirror a cruel ray of
Alpha Grommett's sun caught her worn knobs and tatty grille. Courage waned.
She needed moral support for her new stand.
        "Meg Kindheart!"
        Sally Diode dashed to the modem and began pouring out her poor mechanical
soul, all unknowing, to a lizard from steamy Gamma Globulin.
        By midday, the office temperature was in the high hundreds. Bruce Diode,
despite his insulation and regulation blowers, was frazzled and short of
        Outside, he knew, in the mercury pools and mineral tailings, young
machines cavorted under the roasting sun and thought of nothing but love,
fun and self-replication.
        For Bruce, sockets running with oil, the day was the pit of hell.
        All morning long, from its inauspicious beginning, he'd felt utterly
miserable. He and Sally were well and truly stuck in a rut. He'd been
denying this truth for years. Now it was unavoidable.
        "Blast!" he muttered on the short-wave local band. "Damn and blast!"
Several juniors raised their optics, shrank back to their terminals when he
caught them at it. In a pet, he threw his files back into storage and seethed.
        That bitch Meg Kindheart, he thought. She'd know what was amiss in his
marriage. She'd give him a five line solution that could mean anything or
nothing. He leaned back wearily, letting his hind springs take the weight
for a change.
        Inspiration struck like a glitch from heaven.
        The kid at the next work station shunted his optics cautiously. "Yes, Mr
        "My boy, can you lend me your copy of the Intelligencer for half a mo'?"
        "Sure." The young mechanism looked relieved that he was not going to be
shouted at. He fished inside his leg. "Here, sir."
        Bruce nodded curtly, turned aside so nobody could see over his shoulder,
found For the Love-Lorn.
        The office clock beamed out the midday break. Everyone but Bruce rose and
left the room.
        Mr Diode drew a keyboard toward him and began a biting letter to the
meddling machine he loathed so much.
        The finest Heart-Balm columnist in the universe was, at that very moment,
examining her bulletin board.
        The day's dreadful temperatures had dropped only a little, but inside her
steamy, climate-set module on Alpha Grommett the stout green lizard crossed
the room from her escritoire to draw the mica curtains.
        Halfway through her first millennium, Mrs Emilia Aardwimble had retired
from her position as Matron of Eggs after a massive cholesterol-induced
heart attack, followed by intermittent cardiac troubles.
        Casting about for an interest, she chanced during a long recuperative
galactic tour upon the unusual machine city of Rock-Breaks-Scissors, with
which for reasons not even she could explain she fell instantly in love.
        Perhaps it was the boom and clack, the humming industry.
        Perhaps the unorthodox beauty of an entire planet restricted by no
ecological niceties, so that poisonous but lovely fumes gusted ceaselessly
across a sky like beaten egg-yolk (though this was scarcely an image Mrs
Aardwimble would have permitted to linger within her conscious awareness)
and delirious young mechanisms sported merrily in mineral tailings so
carcinogenic they'd instantly bring cancers boiling through the lung and
digestive tract of any unprotected creature based on the carbon molecule.
        Now, for a moment, Mrs Aardwimble stood at her triple-sealed window,
gazing at the flaring yellow sky and the viridescent angular shapes of the
        A breezy tornado came off the liquid mercury sea, raising a purple haze,
carrying to her ears through the sturdy walls of her life-support module
the happy bleats and pitterings of machines at play.
        Emilia smiled to see their happiness, but her smile grew wistful as she
remembered the thousands who did not share it.
        Slowly, she turned her great green mass, pivoting awesomely on her tail,
and returned to her screen's index of tragic letters.
        Most of these communications were too intimate and shocking to answer
through the newspaper. Meg Kindheart always sent personal replies to these
letters, direct, via the Ethernet.
        As she sat down again in the huge hydraulic chair with its slot cut for
her tail, she glanced, as always, at the umber hologram of her four
hatchlings and the grandchildren. Fervently, Mrs Emilia Aardwimble thanked
the Great Whistling Moon that the kids had grown up healthy, strong and
happy. If only--
        Young Brian Aardwimble's face smiled poignantly from one of the earliest
of the holograms, breaking her heart.
        Brian, the brilliant saurian musician, the master of contrapuntal
warbling, the prodigy who had died so tragically young.
        Only Mrs Aardwimble and her inseminator knew the anguish of their
mistakes, of forcing Brian in the egg, of demands imposed in the long
dreaming years within its leathery shell, years which they had made a
nightmare of competitive pressure and premature peer rivalry.
        Yet out of suffering, she knew, gazing at his young likeness, comes a
measure of wisdom.
        Sighing, Mrs Aardwimble called up the first pleading cry for help.
        The letter was from a young mechanism, already in the throes of
replication after a thoughtless bout of solitary self-loodling, driven to
distraction by its predicament. It was thinking of erasing its ROM chip.
        With a wrench, Mrs Aardwimble looked again at Brian's portrait, and away.
Carefully, choosing her words with precision, she wrote a message of solace
to the pregnant machine.
        It would not appear in the Intelligencer. This was a personal life-line, a
work of organic love.
        The next letter was from an ageing housebot, a rather silly, selfish mech
who wanted all the answers without any of the effort. Yet she at least had
a dream, one she wished Meg Kindheart to endorse, even if it was a
heedless, feckless dream.
        She sought approval to leave her spouse and escape with some shining hero
of fantasy, something along the lines of Francis Coppola's dreadful movie
One From The Heart but with a more rosy ending.
        The big lizard eased her buttocks and put her snout into her cupped claws.
For the moment, she returned the letter to its holding register.
        Thirteen letters down the stack she came on the mirror image of Mrs Diode's.
        It began sarcastically, even rudely. Mrs Aardwimble was tempted to delete
it from memory, but hesitated because of an element of loss, of genuine
frustration behind the bitterness.
        The machine which had input these words was disappointed with marriage,
with his career, with everything. The final challenge was ironic, but Mrs
Aardwimble responded to the unhappy aspiration beneath it:
        "Do you suggest, Miss Heal-All Kindfart, that I should leave my little
hausfrau and seek a True Love in the great wide world?"
        Mrs Emilia Aardwimble was not without a deeply compassionate sense of
humour. Giggling to herself, she called back the earlier letter into an
adjacent window and sat considering her replies.
         The sky over Rock-Breaks-Scissors was violently violet, tinged with a
grey stolid enough to be edible.
        Bruce Diode leaned against the leaf-spring shock absorbers of his traction
line, zipping home. The volcanoes had brought dreadful weather the past few
weeks. High above the carbon dioxide atmosphere, clouds of sulphuric acid
swept across the countryside, pouring down as dreary corrosive rain each
night and ruining the children's outdoor games.
        Bruce was, frankly, more relaxed and at ease with himself than he'd been
for years, though his cabinet tingled and surged with excited expectation.
He hadn't felt this way since his courtship, and even that had been a
rigid, controlled business.
        Eagerly, Mr Diode anticipated the joys of getting home from work.
        The line of robots clipping on and off the traction came to a ragged halt
at an earthquake fracture. While the repairbots spurted out their
quick-setting crystal bridgework, Bruce jounced impatiently against his
springs. His eyes rolled inside his cabinet, read once more the latest
letter from his secret sweetheart.
        "My darling," ran the words across his inward screen, "I cannot imagine
how I lived before we met. But that's silly, isn't it? --because we have
not met. Or perhaps we have, perhaps our chips were etched by the same
Xaser, doped from the same source, and perhaps in these bytes we take from
each other a link has been forged between two wild spirits."
        The copper greens of the buildings nearby shivered with light even though
the sun was setting.
        Bruce Diode shivered, too, with besotted love.
        "I like to believe that we are the only two of our model, stamped out as a
pair, the blueprint zeroed. O my love, my yet-nameless love, can we not go
together into that world of our dreams where I summon you now only during
off-peak inactivation? Impossible? I cannot believe it. . ."
        Tenderly, Bruce sent the magic bits back to enciphered safe keeping.
        A splatter of drops fell, and the traction system raised its perfunctory
shields. Bruce felt like crying aloud with bitter-sweet rejoicing.
        "Rain," his lover had written, "how like the pain which falls in cruel
droplets when love is lost. Something my husband could never understand--"
        Well, Bruce growled to himself, damn the big dumb insensitive brute.
        And so on and so forth.
        "You'll understand," Meg Kindheart had written to him, "why I cannot
publish this letter. But I see a way to help you. You deem yourself married
to the wrong mechanism. Why, then, let me introduce you to a 'bot suffering
the same agonies, someone you might love if only I can bring you together."
        Bless her, he thought. He grunted a form of greeting as he entered the
house, but there was no reply. No doubt Sally was visiting one of her vapid
friends. He'd have to make do with the leavings from the morning sump.
        One light burned in his study, on the bulletin board. He rolled forward on
his fat little wheels, extensors quivering, and jacked in.
        It was not from his lover. Disappointment crushed him briefly, to be
replaced by new excitement.
        It was a note from Meg Kindheart.
        An invitation to Scissors Heights! For dinner! This very evening!
        Zealously, he scrubbed down his cabinet and polished his lenses.
Scampering like a young mech, he dashed for the outbound traction and
plugged in.
        Bald wheels spinning free, he plunged toward his destiny.
        There's no point in laboring this, I trust?
        The big elegantly dressed lizard met Bruce at the door.
        Yes, he was led in to the steamy, somewhat uncomfortable living room.
        Yes, he found himself staring at a large worn Art Deco radio, whom he
saved from pitching on its dial with a deft sweep of his extensor.
        Yes, he tweetered like a fool and broadcast all over the place while Mrs
Emilia Aardwimble withdrew graciously from the room.
        "Poor Sally," Bruce Diode thought, when he was capable of thinking the
next thing. "She looks as if she'll die of mortification."
        Then he saw himself clearly, abandoning embarrassment, forgetting
pettiness, seeing as well, before him, in the figure of his wife, the
mechanism which had written those sweet, those savage letters.
        The 'bot he had never known!
        And somehow he sensed deep within his most hard-wired circuits that Sally
was seeing him in the same perspective, seeing him as her shining
servomech, that passionate machine which until now had always been afraid
to speak its wonder and joy!
        With darkly brooding sensuality, Bruce Diode rolled across the floor to
his wife.
        Yes, and Sally looked back at him and saw a little funny machine like a
Singer Sewer, and she forgave him the endless irritations, the selfishness,
the private detective paperbacks, the humorless pedestrian dreariness of
him, for he was, after all, and at last, her great and shining hero.
        Robots have no sense of the grotesque, I'm sorry to say. Extensors linked,
Bruce and Sally Diode rolled side by side in pursuit of Mrs Emilia
Aardwimble and their promised dinner.



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