Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review: The Proud Robot

"The Proud Robot" (Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1943,) by Lewis Padgett (AKA Henry Kuttner)

Galloway Gallegher is a genius.  No, he's a drunk.  His subconscious is a genius.  The good news is that when Gallegher gets drunk, it releases his subconscious to produce scientific wonders.  The bad news is that his subconscious is completely amoral, has no sense of fiscal economy, and when Gallegher comes off a bender he hasn't any memory of what his subconscious has been up to.  For example, he may wake up and discover standing in the middle of the room a transparent robot with a screeching voice and a case of narcissism that is usually associated with certain American presidents who affect exotic names.   

And in this case, that's exactly what happens.

So far, so weird. You'd think that having to live with a disdainful automaton that does nothing except stare at itself in the mirror would be bad enough, but when Gallegher learns that during a recent beer binge he'd agreed to help a 3D television mogul fight off a rival who is pirating the mogul's programming.  Gallegher's day gets worse when he finds out that he's bought a small fortune in diamonds that he used to build the robot, and then that the robot, irritated by the phone calls of the diamond merchant wanting his money, has used hypnosis to impersonate Gallegher and raised the money needed to pay for the diamonds (and not a penny more) by signing away Gallegher's services to the baddie 3D television company for five years.  How can Gallegher get the proud robot to cooperate and help him break the bogus contract?  How can he stop the bootlegging?  And how can he make time with beautiful television star Silver O'Keefe?

"The Proud Robot" is a rarity in science fiction: a genuinely funny short story.  The dialogue is droll and the wit is as dry as one of Gallegher's martinis and the plot is farcical with a couple of neat twists at the end.  Gallegher is charming and eccentric with the techno-bohemian style of a man who plays with science rather than merely applying it.  Joe, as the robot is called, is a frustrating wall of a creature who can't be budged by either reason or threats with a sledgehammer.  Even the minor characters are nicely drawn and come across as believable people rather than plot devices.

In recent years,  "The Proud Robot" has suffered a lot of criticism from the professionally offended on the grounds that alcoholism is a serious disease and making fun of drinking is wrong.  Sorry, the sort of people who get in their knickers in that sort of twist don't say "wrong"; they say "inappropriate."  I've never understood the logic behind their anti-alcohol objections because we live in a society where all sorts of ghastly things are made the topic of humour or even the stuff of romantic heroes.  If alcohol is off limits, why isn't mental illness?  We have fictional heroes who are functional schizophrenics and a couple that are homicidal maniacs.Why aren't they off limits?  Or vampires or werewolves? And what about stoner humour? We have an entire sub-genre devoted to drug abuse. How about comedies about people with promiscuous lifestyles?  Don't they know that people who sleep around risk everything from emotional abuse to disease to getting shot?

At any rate, "The Proud Robot" is a nice, gentle tale and it's to be enjoyed like meringue, not taken to task because the eggs are loaded with cholesterol.

Now if you will excuse me, I have a Moscow mule to get on the outside of.

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