(urth) New Wolfe Story at Subterranean Press

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes danldo at gmail.com
Tue Jun 26 15:01:08 PDT 2007

On 6/26/07, Matthew King <automatthew at gmail.com> wrote:
> If I hadn't known the story was by Wolfe, this sentence would have
> revealed it:
> "I'm going to pry, Roberta. I'm going to ask you about things that
> are none of my business. I hope you'll answer."

Yeah ... that sounds like it could come right out of Silk's mouth,
doesn't it?

> So has the narrator caused Roberta to lose her innocence by leading
> her to  "realize" that she is a thing, not a real girl?  I use the
> scare quotes because Wolfe has consistently shown in his other work
> that one needn't be human to be people.

What we have here appears at first glance to be a variation on the
Pinocchio/Astro Boy problem: the robot who wants to be a "real boy," or,
in this case, girl. Roberta is, as you say, "people," and at the story's
beginning it has not even occurred to her that she might not be.

This tells us a few things (in the manner of science fiction) about the
culture in which she lives, the most important of which is that most
people in this culture accept robots as "people." She has been going
to school and does not appear to have been in any way singled out
or mistreated for her "different"-ness; she plays with flesh children
with nobody thinking anything bad or odd about it.

This is key. Robots are *totally* integrated into this human society.

Yet our narrator has a problem with that. He seems to function in the
society, but he hates it, hates what he perceives as its neat, orderly,
artificial nature, and especially its sterility.

Our gently curving streets offended me. Our neatly finished green
lawns, more than half of them of artificial grass, offended me still more.
I hated every house I saw; their fresh paint and absurd mixture of
styles were more than sufficient to account for any amount of hatred.

Yet I had another, better, reason. I hated then because there was
scarcely one that housed two children, and that most housed none.

Like my own.

The first question to pose here: Is his society really this sterile, or is
he projecting his own sterility onto it? The three words that convey
his own childlessness get a paragraph to themselves. They are
important to him.

This leads to a second: Is he human? If robots this integrated into
society, he might not think to mention it; yet, if he feels the way he
seems to, one would hardly think he would fail to mention it.

(Incidentally, why are we all saying "he" and "him"? Is the narrator's
gender ever mentioned?)

And the next paragraphs feed on this ambiguity:

My kind had built a paradise, of which I was a part. A paradise for
machines, in which the human race, though welcome, could not and
did not thrive. In and around the filthy huts of the medieval peasants,
children ran and shouted, laughed and wept, and no doubt received
sturdy buffets when they made too much noise. There the family
sang around a table we would scorn. There grandmothers recounted
wild tales before the fire, tales full of bold boys who made good and
honest country maidens who tricked evil dwarves like me.

Tales that were full of life because the children were, and full of
death, too, because each child had to learn that death is life's

Here—But I have gone on too long already.

How very odd: the narrator speaks of "my kind," but as far as these
paragraphs suggest, the narrator's "kind" could as easily be the
machines as the humans.

I am reminded a bit of Isaac Asimov's story, "Segregationist," a story
about a surgeon who is opposed to the practice of putting machine
parts into human bodies. The "shock ending" reveals that the surgeon
is, himself, a robot (a fact important in the context of Asimov's robot
stories, in which robots very much reflected the position of Blacks
in mid-20th-century America).

Children full of life, and full of death: where is this going? And what
did the narrator stop him/herself from saying?

> I don't believe the dog was dead.

Nor do I. The narrator picks "him," not "it" up, and carries "him" home.
In a story that focuses (in part) on the relation between the living and
the non-living the choice of pronoun matters.

> > - A question that popped out at me while I was reading:  Who is the
> > "our" in the "our own" in the sentence quoted above?

An excellent question. The narrator does not at any other point mention
any companions -- unless it is the "we" who would "scorn" the
medieval peasants' tables.

> And why does the narrator give himself the role of the
> evil dwarf in his imagining of a fecund human past?

Because he has contributed to the corruption of an "honest country
maiden," perhaps. And perhaps, like Rumplestiltskin, all would be
resolved if we could guess his name. (Pleased to meet you ...)

We are clearly intended to set up parallels and oppositions
between the girls and the pups, leading to questions about
Julianne's parents(!), and about how all four relate to the
narrator. I find this detail telling. The narrator says that Rover

innocent as are the young of almost every animal, and
friendly as are the young of a very few.

The word "animal" takes on additional resonances if we try
on the position that the narrator is a robot, does it not?

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes, writer, trainer, bon vivant
Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations,
inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire
salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards
reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it'll be beautiful.

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