Friday, July 5, 2024

"Then I Saw the Cylinders!"

WITH everybody buzzing about Artificial Intelligence (AI) being set up to take over the world, we thought it might be timely to go back ninety years and see what one of our forebears thought of the idea, as a horrified time traveler encounters . . .

"The Mentanicals."
By Francis Flagg (Henry George [or George Henry] Weiss, 1898-1946; Wikipedia HERE; ISFDb HERE; SFE HERE).
Illustrated by Morey (1899-1965; ISFDb HERE).
First appearance: Amazing Stories, April 1934 (cover story).
Reprints page (ISFDb HERE).
Novelette (40 pages).
Online at Roy Glashan's Library (HERE).

   "They appeared to skim the stone or concrete with which the square was paved, rather than touch it."

THERE can't be too many people who have transformed society, collapsed civilization, and become the object of worship all in a single lifetime, but one of our characters has managed to do just that . . .

Comment: Here we have a story within a story within a story.

Principal characters:
~ The narrator ("I had been drinking, you will recollect, and my powers of observation were not at their best"), Bronson ("I loosened the automatic in its shoulder holster—the small one I always carry—and prepared for emergencies"), Smith ("'The thing,' he said, 'is moonshine, pure moonshine'"), Stringer ("But do you know the idea of an actual Time Machine grew on me?"), Gleason ("a noted surgeon who does not wish his name or description given here"), Morrow ("'Food,' he said, 'it's giving out. I shudder to think what the future holds in store for us'"), and Bane Borgson ("I am that unhappy man").

References and resources:
- "I had read H. G. Wells' 'The Time Machine,' as who has not, deeming it fantastic fiction":
  "The Time Machine is an 1895 dystopian post-apocalyptic science fiction novella by H. G. Wells about a Victorian scientist known as the Time Traveller who travels approximately 800,806 years into the future. The work is generally credited with the popularization of the concept of time travel by using a vehicle or device to travel purposely and selectively forward or backward through time. The term 'time machine,' coined by Wells, is now almost universally used to refer to such a vehicle or device." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE; also see HERE).
  Several ONTOS postings also deal with Wells's "dystopian post-apocalyptic science fiction novella" (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
Artwork by Lou Cameron.
- "and of course I had read the play R.U.R.":
  The "robots" in Čapek's play are radically different from what Flagg has in mind: 
  "The play begins in a factory that makes artificial workers from synthetic organic matter. (As living creatures of artificial flesh and blood, that later terminology would call androids, the playwright's 'roboti' differ from later fictional and scientific concepts of inorganic constructs.) Robots may be mistaken for humans but have no original thoughts. Though most are content to work for humans, eventually [SPOILER!] . . ." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE).
- "a sort of Wolf Larsen of a fellow, but more versatile and amenable than Jack London's character":
  "The Sea-Wolf is a 1904 psychological adventure novel by American writer Jack London. The book's protagonist, Humphrey Van Weyden, is a literary critic who is a survivor of an ocean collision and who comes under the dominance of Wolf Larsen, the powerful and amoral sea captain who rescues him. Its first printing of forty thousand copies was immediately sold out before publication on the strength of London's previous The Call of the Wild. Ambrose Bierce wrote, 'The great thing—and it is among the greatest of things—is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen ... the hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in one lifetime ... The love element, with its absurd suppressions, and impossible proprieties, is awful'." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE).
- "Frankenstein must have felt as I felt in those days":
  Whenever a science project goes wrong, it's only natural to think about this story (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE).
- "The dream of the Technocrats—a group of pseudo-scientists and engineers who held forth in 1932-33—seemed about to be fulfilled":
  "Technocracy is a form of government in which the decision-makers are selected based on their expertise in a given area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge. Technocracy follows largely in the tradition of other meritocracy theories and assumes full state control over political and economic issues.
  "This system explicitly contrasts with representative democracy, the notion that elected representatives should be the primary decision-makers in government, though it does not necessarily imply eliminating elected representatives. Decision-makers are selected based on specialized knowledge and performance rather than political affiliations, parliamentary skills, or popularity.
  "The term technocracy was initially used to signify the application of the scientific method to solving social problems. In its most extreme form, technocracy is an entire government running as a technical or engineering problem and is mostly hypothetical. In more practical use, technocracy is any portion of a bureaucracy run by technologists." (Wikipedia HERE; also see HERE).

- "the automatic devices go on with the tireless work of repairing, oiling, manufacturing":
  Just a coincidence? In the same year (1934), a self-perpetuating infrastructure appeared in John W. Campbell's short story "Twilight." (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE). The same idea showed up twenty-two years later in the motion picture Forbidden Planet. (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE).
- "What had been in its inception a device for the coining of myriad plots for popular writers, evolved into a machine-author capable of turning out story after story without repeating itself":
  "Although a chatbot's core function is to mimic a human conversationalist, ChatGPT is versatile. It can write and debug computer programs; compose music, teleplays, fairy tales, and student essays; answer test questions (sometimes, depending on the test, at a level above the average human test-taker); generate business ideas; write poetry and song lyrics; translate and summarize text; emulate a Linux system; simulate entire chat rooms; play games like tic-tac-toe; or simulate an ATM.
  ". . . Some scholars have expressed concern that ChatGPT's availability could reduce the originality of writing, cause people to write more like the AI as they are exposed to the model, and encourage an Anglocentric perspective centered on a few dialects of English globally. A senior editor at The Atlantic wrote that ChatGPT and other similar technology make the previously absurd idea of the dead internet theory a little more realistic, where AI could someday create most web content in order to control society." (Wikipedia HERE; also see HERE and HERE for the big picture).
- "and filled my veins with radiant energy instead of blood. Radium":
  Radium didn't do Marie Curie much good, though, or those factory girls:
  "Handling of radium has been blamed for Marie Curie's death, due to aplastic anemia. A significant amount of radium's danger comes from its daughter radon: Being a gas, it can enter the body far more readily than can its parent radium." (Wikipedia HERE).
  "The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting radium dials – watch dials and hands with self-luminous paint. The incidents occurred at three factories in the United States: one in Orange, New Jersey, beginning around 1917; one in Ottawa, Illinois, beginning in the early 1920s; and one in Waterbury, Connecticut, also in the 1920s." (Wikipedia HERE).
- Technovelgy acknowledges "The Mentanicals" (HERE).
- "Francis Flagg" produced pure pulp fiction for the SFF magazines for twenty years starting in 1927, many of them enjoying afterlives in reprint publications. So far, in his deluxe reading library Roy Glashan has collected 23 of his works (HERE), with more to come.
- Previously on ONTOS we stumbled across a couple of stories featuring a helpful AI: Martin Loran's "An Ounce of Dissension" and "The Case of the Perjured Planet" (HERE).

The bottom line:
  "This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple."
   — Colossus

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

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