(urth) (Urth) Short Story 28: Slaves of Silver

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes danldo at gmail.com
Fri May 25 14:02:24 PDT 2012

Also of note: the economy of this future world has reversed the concept of
"retirement" -- only the elderly are obliged to work for a living.

On Fri, May 25, 2012 at 1:48 PM, Marc Aramini <marcaramini at yahoo.com> wrote:

> Slaves of Silver******
> Slaves of Silver first appeared in Galaxy in 1971.  It is a fairly
> straightforward Sherlock Holmes type story … with some robots and a
> socialist kind of monetary disbursement for humans who are allowed to be
> rich until they commit a crime or reach a certain age, where they
> can select declassification or death.  It is collected on pg 42 in
> Storeys from the Old Hotel.****
> SUMMARY: The robotic Bio-mechanic (doctor) named Westing after
> Westinghouse remembers the first day he met the consulting engineer and
> detective March B Street.  He is not happy with his current living
> arrangements and sees an ad for 8 credits a month in his newspaper – but
> there will be no entertaining and quiet must be maintained.  He decides
> to answer the ad.****
> Street, a human who has not been declassed due to age, lives in an
> apartment with 3 expanders – a technology that “steals” space form the
> cosmos and makes it usable, making the inside “larger” than the outside
> (there must be segregation between the humans living on their allotment and
> who accept euthanasia at a certain age and those who are turned out to
> “earn” a living)  Street determines that Westing is honest – for a bio
> mechanic has many opportunities to steal.  He makes other deductions
> about his character and his method of arrival, some from simple things like
> a mono ticket stuck to Westing’s foot.  They are interrupted by another
> visitor to Street’s apartment, Commissioner Electric, who hires Street to
> investigate the disappearance of deactivated robots who have no function
> from their storage hall – the economy is bad, and when there is no work for
> the robots to undertake, they shut down.****
> A quote is useful for summing up their economic situation “Free markets
> and free robots, may be a joke now to some, but it has built our
> civilization.  Robots are assembled when the demand for labor exceeds the
> supply.  When supply exceeds demand … when the excess cibercitizens can’t
> make a living – they turn themselves in at the hiring hall, where they’re
> deactivated until they are needed again”.  Humans must also adjust to
> learning to make a living when they reach a certain age if they do not
> accept being euthanized. ****
> Street and Westing visit the Hiring Hall and Street takes down the dates
> and numbers involved in the disappearances.  The talk leads to Westing
> recommending some drugs for Street’s depression, and Street responds: “Not
> at all Westing.  Thought is my drug – and believe me it is both
> stiulating and frustrating.  My need is for a soporific, and your
> conversation fills the bill better than anything you could prescribe.”  Westing
> then details the aberrant color display of a tri-d set, fluctuating in a
> certain pattern.****
> Street latches on to this and is able to match that repetitive flux of
> colors with the verbal sounds in spoken language through a robotic speech
> chart and eventually determine that the color display was shouting out for
> “help” since the verbal circuits of the enslaved robots was being put to
> other use.  ****
> Street is able to determine that the criminals are turning off the
> expanders, returning the robots to outer space, where they are then picked
> up by a freighter and put to work for free.  Street reveals that he was
> declassed for having a clone and didn’t want to marry because “I prefer to
> have a home.  And no man has a home unless he is master of a place where
> he must please no one – a place where he can go and lock the door behind
> him.”  He does not view Westing as an intrusion because “You’re no more
> in the way than a refrigerator.”****
> The social fears of Wolfe extrapolated into the future at the 1970s short
> story level are thankfully never the primary gist.  Much like
> “Remembrance to Come” and “Sonya, Crane Wesselman, and Kittee”, this shows
> a much more socialist style world in which everyone lives wealthily with a
> stipend until they either reach the maximum age and are euthanized or
> accept “declassification” where they have to work for a living.  They may
> also be declassed for crimes or aberrant behavior such as asexual
> reproduction.  ****
> The prominence of socialist thought in the world’s superpowers at the time
> and the somewhat liberal zeitgeist clearly occupied a central fixture in
> Wolfe’s early fiction.  Most of the declassed humans seem to be incapable
> of providing for themselves, and this has created an economy where
> enslaving these robots can even further upset the balance.****
> Street in this one is a bit of a jerk to his robot friends, calling
> Westing soporific and pretty much a refrigerator, and he mirrors to some
> degree the distrust of women found in Nero Wolfe as well.****
> These mysteries of Wolfe are often way more straightforward than the
> science fantasies he writes, and in this one the “Slaves of Silver” is of
> course a double entendre – the silver/metallic robots are being stolen and
> put to use on the black market, but EVERYONE has become a slave to their
> allotment of silver from a central disbursement in the culture, and only
> those like March B Street have stepped outside that line.  The robotic
> doctor is definitely still a “wage slave” thanks to his scruples, for March
> avers that he has ample opportunity to make dishonest money.****
> On the plot level there is nothing remarkable save the complete absence of
> the “bad guys” – they are not personal entities and the mystery is more in
> finding out “how” they have committed their enslavement of surplus robots.
> ****
> As in “Last Casualty of Cambrai” and “The Largest Luger”, some properties
> of physics and the way that these robots are programmed plays into the
> solution – the color chart that represents their verbal pattern is used to
> find how they have been enslaved, and the physical properties of the
> expander unit also allow for the crime to take place.  Street is an
> engineer, and these mechanistic principals seem to lay at the heart of
> Wolfe’s mysteries as keys to both the crimes and the solutions.****
> AMBIGUITIES: Why has Street cloned himself?****
> ALLUSIONS/INSPIRATIONS: Doyle, Poe’s Dupin, maybe a little bit of an
> Asimovian robot ethic.  Westinghouse was a huge electric company founded
> in 1886 that expanded into all manner of transmission and electrical
> tehcnologies into the 20th century.  The opening introduction certainly
> follows the first meeting of Holmes and Watson in Study in Scarlet or the
> interaction between Dupin and his friend pretty closely – insights reduced
> to mechanistic explanations.****
> In an inversion of the normal expectation, even though psychotropic drugs
> seem to be commonplace just as in “Remembrance to Come”, Street abstains
> from them entirely, avoiding Holme’s addictions.  Westing is of course a
> Watson type, and the name March B Street may refer to Baker street, but
> that really doesn’t tell us much.****
> RELIGIOUS IMPLICATIONS: Very few here – the heaviest it gets is Westing’s
> subconscious “processor” which at times makes him very scrupulous of his
> own well-being and self-preservation.  Street sees him as little more
> than a refrigerator.****
> RESONANCE IN OTHER WORKS: We are getting to the point when there may have
> been more in common with what came before for these mysteries – this is a
> natural outgrowth from his “Case of the Vanishing Ghost” and “The Last
> Casualty of Cambrai”, and there is a direct sequel in “The Rubber Bend”.  Wolfe’s
> mysteries are usually not as mysterious as his science fiction, and this
> seems a pretty straightforward tale in general.  “The Detective of
> Dreams” and Pandora are probably his most successful mysteries.****
> The fear of 1960s social trends and communism/socialism is still at work
> here.****
> ** **
> Next up we have Sweet Forest Maid from Endangered Species.****
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Dan'l Danehy-Oakes
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