Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Review: The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Originally posted on Tales of Future Past.

The modern smart phones are clever little things. They update our calendars, they write our memos, they check our email, they text our messages and they generally keep us in touch with our colleagues in the workaday world. They can even be used as phones!

But is this enough? Couldn't someone invent something just a little bit better to keep us alert and efficient on the job? Science fiction writer Fritz Leiber thought so and set forth his idea in his short story "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" (Galaxy, December 1962).

The time is the near future when the Cold War is still raging and most of the United States population has withdrawn into that sci-fi cliché, the underground city. Gusterson, an idea man with a rebellious streak, who refuses to move his family from the surface to Cleveland Below, is fed up with the pestering of Fay, a representative of the Micro Systems Company, who wants new ideas for consumer products. After suggesting things like automatic lint collectors, orbiting bubble homes, synthetic beauty masks, and plutonium-eating termites, Gusterson's patience reaches its limit and he suggests the following:
I’ll tell you what you can have that ignorant team of yours invent. They can fix me up a mechanical secretary that I can feed orders into and that’ll remind me when the exact moment comes to listen to TV or phone somebody or mail in a story or write a letter or pick up a magazine or look at an eclipse or a new orbiting station or fetch the kids from school or buy Daisy (Mrs Gusterson. ed.) a bunch of flowers or whatever it is. It’s got to be something that’s always with me, not something I have to go and consult or that I can get sick of and put down somewhere. And it’s got to remind me forcibly enough so that I take notice and don’t just shrug it aside, like I sometimes do even when Daisy reminds me of things. That’s what your stupid team can invent for me! If they do a good job, I’ll pay ’em as much as fifty dollars!
Three weeks later, Fay returns with a prototype of the gadget Gusterson described. It's a bit like a cross between an alarm clock and an audio recorder with a vibrating alarm added for good measure. Worn on the shoulder, it reminds the owner of appointments with prerecorded announcements and a discrete buzz. Gusterson is not happy and wants nothing to do with the "Tickler", as Fay calls it.

Fay returns to the Gustersons periodically and each time he's wearing the latest version of the Tickler–each one larger and more sophisticated than the last. Soon the Tickler is feeding Fay subliminal verbal stimuli to keep him motivated, monitoring body electricity and blood chemistry, and injecting him with drugs. It grows so large (It weighs two stone!) that Fay resembles a hunchback and has to wear special shirts and jackets with holes cut in the shoulder. You'd think this would make Fay a bit conspicuous, but not when everyone else in Cleveland Below is wearing similar.

Then Gusterson gets a good look at the latest model and, to his horror, sees that it has a camera and two tiny mechanical arms, so it looks like a cycloptic robot monkey squatting on Fay's shoulder. The thing is even reading Fay's memos for him and tearing up the ones that it'd rather the man not read.

Then, one day, it starts whispering in Fay's ear
Day by day, in every way, you’re learning to listen … and obey. Day by day—
Excuse me while I dump my phone down the toilet.

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