Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley

Where’s the off-switch?

Whenever anyone mentions driverless vehicles, a shiver of horror runs down my spine. Apart from the inescapable fact that computers notoriously break down at the most awkward moments, there is the social issue of man building himself out of jobs, and the added threat that artificial intelligence may one day be greater than our own – in some cases, I suspect it already is! This collection of fourteen classic science fiction stories examines the impact of the machine and warns of the various forms of dystopian nightmare we might bring down upon ourselves…

Menace of the Machine
edited by Mike Ashley

And a lot of fun is it too! As much horror as science fiction, we have machines that murder, intelligent machines that decide they know what’s best for humanity, onlife life taken to extremes, automatons who follow instructions a little too literally, and robots who rebel against the ‘slavery’ imposed on them by their human masters. There’s an introduction by Mike Ashley, giving the history of the machine in fiction from the earliest times and showing how the stories in the anthology reflect the development of the machine, both in reality and in the imaginations of writers.

The authors include many of the greats, from Ambrose Bierce to Arthur C Clarke, via Isaac Asimov, EM Forster, Brian W Aldiss, et al, and with many others who were new to me. A few take a humorous approach while others go for outright horror, but many are more thoughtful, considering how the drive towards mechanisation might affect our society in the future. Since these are older stories, some of the predictions can be judged against our contemporary reality, and several are chillingly prescient. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Ely’s Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth Bellamy. The narrator’s old friend from university is a mechanical genius. He invents a domestic automaton and, to support him, the narrator buys two, and sets them loose in his house to free up his wife from the domestic drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Written strictly for laughs, this is a farce about the dangers of machines when they don’t operate as planned.

Automata by S Fowler Wright. Man has created machines so advanced they can now look after themselves and make more machines as required. At first this gives humanity freedom from labour, but gradually mankind becomes redundant. Chilling and still relevant as we move towards some of the things the author envisaged, such as self-driving vehicles, the story asks the question – without the purpose provided by the need to labour, what is man for?

The Machine Stops by EM Forster. Man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions. But what would happen if the Machine stopped? The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. (I previously discussed this story at more length in a Transwarp Tuesday! post.)

But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W Aldiss. Far into the future, there are machines for every purpose, with various levels of intelligence. One day, they receive no orders from their human masters. The high intelligence machines conclude that man has finally died out, as a result of diet deficiency caused by soil exhaustion. With no-one to serve, the robots must decide how to organise themselves. Lots of humour in this, but also a chilling edge as we see the basic lack of humanity in how the machines behave when left to their own devices.

Overall, a very good collection with lots of variety – entertaining, scary and thought-provoking. Recommended to science fiction and horror fans alike, and always remember… you may not know how Alexa works, but she knows exactly how you do…

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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28 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley

  1. Looks like a fun volume! I can’t help thinking of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains” And I think of the driverless cars in I, Robot. (Not to mention the robots themselves. . . .)

    • Oh, I loved that Bradbury story – so haunting! Driverless cars are the invention of the devil, as are mobile phones, the internet and especially Twitter!! The only technology I want is a time machine so I can travel back to before we handed over our lives to the machines… 😉

  2. This does sound like a great collection, FictionFan. There really is a deeper set of questions to ask ourselves as machines get more and more sophisticated, isn’t there? Little wonder that the Earthmen in Bradbury’s Elijah Baley series hate and fear robots so much…

    • Very timely! Yes, it’s a pity humanity always invents the thing first and worries about the implications later – you’d think we’d learn from experience! I’d still like a nice domestic robot (with an off-switch) but driverless cars are a step too far. #Luddite 😉

  3. This one sounds delightful. A bit scary, too. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how some of these things might actually happen, especially if we transfer all our thinking to machines. Shh, don’t let Alexa hear me say that!

    • I think a lot of it is already happening – especially the dratted internet! Haha – I haven’t got an Alexa yet. I think I have an allergy to the idea of talking machines taking control of my life… 😱😉

  4. I never think of Forster as a science fiction writer at all, so I am surprised to discover that he is the one who predicted Twitter! I will have to pick this one up, I think.

    • I never did either till I stumbled across that story a couple of years ago. I don’t know if he wrote much sci-fi, but that one is a true classic and well worth reading. The descriptions of the Machine are so like the internet – it’s truly terrifying!! 😀

  5. Oh, I love AI! It is so fascinating. I even took a course to get up to speed. I suspect some of these stories are not farfetched at all, a lot of progress has been made in recent years and AI which teaches itself has in some cases proved much more successful than AI which is taught by humans. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which I recently read (review on my blog) is super scary (in a dry and technical way), but it sounds like the book above is a much more entertaining way of getting scared!

    • The scariness came from the fact that they really don’t seem far-fetched at all – too chillingly possible! I’m kinda terrified of AI, and of robot technology generally although I would like a nice domestic housekeeping robot with an off-switch. I read Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind a while ago, and while it was more about technologically enhancing human intelligence rather than strict AI, it scared the bejabers out of me! Lock up all the scientists and throw away the key!!! #Luddite 😉

    • Haha! I’m terrified of AI and of increased automation generally! The only machine I want is a time machine so I can go back to the days before we handed over our lives to the internet, mobile phones, driverless cars… 😱😉

    • Oh, I’ve been seeing reviews of it recently – terrifying! I quite fancy reading it but I’m soooooo behind I can’t seem to be able to fit any more in at the moment…

  6. I’m not a massive sci-fi fan – or even a small one come to that. And I’m scared of AI – glad I’m not alone in that 🙂 But I am intrigued by this volume, especially by the Forster. I frequently find stories to be the best way into a subject for me – in this instance just that little bit less scary because it’s not really true…. Is it? 🤔 😱

    • I love old sci-fi but am not really a fan of current stuff. The older ones really more often count as “speculative fiction” and show a lot of imagination The Forster is brilliant – so scarily close to where we are now with the internet and social media. I think it is true… 😱

    • It’s a much easier way to read The Machine Stops than doing it online, and there are lots of other good stories too – some entertaining, some thought-provoking…

  7. I don’t enjoy driving so cars that drive themselves sound very appealing to me. Except that I’ve read enough science fiction to also feel very nervous about them or about handing any aspect of our lives fully over to a machine. The Machine Stops sounds eerily like it could be about the internet today.

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