Monday, 20 June 2011

Review: The Lost Machine

The illustrator misreads the description.
"The Lost Machine" by John B Harris (1932)

A strange machine like a metal coffin with spider legs and arms is found running about the countryside. Taken to the home of a local doctor, the machine destroys itself; leaving behind only a pool of mercury-like metal and a manuscript that the machine had written, telling its story.  The machine turns out to be a Martian robot stranded on Earth after its spacecraft explodes due to some unexplained accident.   Trapped on an impossibly alien planet, the machine tries to make sense of its surroundings, but things are so different that it can't tell what's artificial and what's not (rivers are badly made canals and buildings are rock outcroppings to it).  It's power to read minds doesn't help because all it picks up is the bewilderment and fear of the humans it encounters.  The final straw comes when the machine sees its first motor car up close and discovers that it's a dumb lump of iron rather than an artificial intelligence.  Faced with utter loneliness, the machine must now cope with emotions it was never designed to entertain.

 Many people believe that all robots in science fiction were rampaging Frankenstein's monsters until Isaac Asimov came along, but there were many earlier examples, such as in this 1932 story by John B Harris–better known today by his more famous pen name of John Wyndham.  "The Lost Machine" is a short story told in flashback. With an economy, Wyndham does an excellent job of conveying the plight of the machine and sets up the beginning/ending of the story beautifully.  Unfortunately, this is balanced by Wyndham still at the stage in his career when he's trying to find his personal style and his grasp of supporting characters is still poor to the point of cliche.  However, his ability to craft a tale of poignancy revolving around a robot demonstrates Wyndham's potential.

No comments:

Post a Comment