Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A gripping story, avoided

Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" appears in SFWA's Science Fiction Hall of Fame, marking it as one of the most widely respected SF novellas of the 1940s.  For me it mostly illustrates a pet peeve I associate more closely with science fiction than with mainstream literary fiction.

The basic idea of the story: it's the future, but not the far future.  The main character is a salesman in the robotic domestic assistants game.  These robots barely clear the threshold of usefulness; they are big, clumsy, and dumb.  The main character's-- and everyone else's-- world is disrupted by the introduction, from a distant planet, of sophisticated humanoid robots capable of out-performing people along just about any dimension of evaluation.  They are programmed "to serve and obey and guard men from harm," and they rapidly take over all the difficult, dangerous, tedious, or otherwise unpleasant aspects of the industrial and service economies.  Almost overnight, there is nothing left for most people to do but enjoy their free time and the excellent products of free robot labor.

That setup is super interesting.  What would it be like to live in a world in which nothing I did was connected to the comfort, let alone the success, let alone the survival, of anyone?  What would it be like to have every possible use of my time boil down to leisure?  I think I want that.  But might there be downsides for me, or for other people in a similar position?  Would there be social downsides when everyone found themselves in that position?

Instead of developing the story to engage these questions, Williamson ducks them.  The humanoid super robots interpret their prime directive with a maximalist zeal.  They don't just protect people from serious harm, they prevent people from taking the kinds of risks that could lead to slightest harm.  They protect people from unpleasant states of mind. If a person is persistently stressed, frustrated, or unhappy, the robots intervene to remove surgically the unhappy portions of the brain.

So, duh.  No one would want to live in that world.  There isn't any question worth exploring.  Nothing about the difference between work and leisure, or their respective products.  Nothing about values at all.  We're left with half an unhelpful lesson story ("Boys and girls, you don't really want guaranteed safety and happiness!") and half a standard adventure story about escaping from confused benevolent oppressors.  (Our last hope for escape? A form a faster-than-light radiation that maybe possibly can scramble the circuits of the mothership from across the gulf of space.  Snore.)

I think:  did Williamson not see what an interesting issue he'd raised?  Why did he turn it into another adventure-story-slash-cautionary-tale when it could have been deep?  I think:  is there something wrong with me that so many people-- readers and writers alike-- hold this up as an example of the best SF has to offer?  Can it really be that a simple cautionary tale about technology was mind-expanding in 1947, two years after the atom bombs?

We can do such much better than lessons gussied up as fiction.  Science fiction is especially able to light up ambiguities that go overlooked in the real world and explore in new ways issues that are way too complicated to write essays about.  It's frustrating when writers pass up obvious opportunities to use the power the genre gives them, as Williamson does here.  And it's puzzling when readers react so enthusiastically to missed opportunities.