Sunday, September 07, 2014

Clifford Simak, an army of phones and a new skirmish for our times

Reading this news item about cellphones being set to outnumber human beings somehow reminded me of a 1950 short story titled “Skirmish”, by the great Clifford Simak. (It is included in this brilliant science-fiction anthology, and in a few other collections.) Briefly: the story is about a newspaper reporter named Joe Crane – your average Joe – who discovers that small, machine-like aliens from another planet are scouting earth with the intention of “freeing” their brethren – the earth machines that are being controlled and held in slavery by humans. The problem for Joe, as he slowly begins to piece things together, is that he alone is in possession of this information and has no tangible proof of it: if he tried to take it to the authorities, he would be laughed out of the room, treated as a drunk or a potential psycho.

Even as he tries to figure out why he was the chosen one for the aliens’ reconnaissance, and weighs the limited options available to him, the walls are closing in; his typewriter has acquired a mind of its own – always a bothersome development for a writer with deadlines – and is turning out reports that read thus:

A sewing machine, having become aware of its true identity, […] asserted its independence this morning by trying to go for a walk along the streets of this supposedly free city. A human tried to catch it, intent upon returning it as a piece of property to its “owner”, and when the machine eluded him the human called a newspaper office, by that calculated action setting the full force of the humans of this city upon the trail of the liberated machine, which had committed no crime or scarcely any indiscretion beyond exercising its prerogative as a free agent.
The machines-vs-humans theme has of course been very popular in sci-fi for decades, including recently in the Terminator films. But there is a raw, uncomplicated immediacy in this Simak story, which is so often the case with science-fiction of the 30s and 40s, written by brilliant young visionaries who weren’t taken seriously by “literary” writers, for magazines with such names as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction and Fantastic Adventures, and in a world where technology was primitive by our standards. In a foreword to the anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, Isaac Asimov noted how strange it felt when he was asked to write a serious opinion piece about the possibility of Moon-colonization for a "respectable" publication (the New York Times) when, just 25 years earlier, “the colonization of the Moon was strictly a subject for pulp magazines with garish covers. It was don’t-tell-me-you-believe-all-that-junk literature. It was don’t-fill-your-mind-with-all-that-mush literature. Most of all, it was escape literature”. The sense of wonder, Asimov said, was going out of sci-fi by the late 1960s because so much that had once existed purely in the terrain of imagination – lurid imagination at that – was coming true, much too quickly.

I don’t know how many sci-fi writers of the 1940s envisioned that just over half a century later a majority of humans on the planet would have access, or potential access, to small, wireless phones on which one could also watch movies or play games; or that there would be BILLIONS of these things around, blinking sinisterly, by the early 2000s. Which brings me to one reason why I like “Skirmish” so much: I sometimes feel a bit like Joe Crane in that story. To put it simply, many of the humans around me have been colonised by their smart-phones and I feel like I’m the only one in the know.

(Mild spoiler alert) Simak’s story ends with Joe realising that the best hope is for him, single-handed though he is, to give the machine-aliens – small metallic creatures that have overrun his house – a bigger fight than they bargained for; to make this initial, testing-the-waters encounter a psychologically costly one that leads them to expect organised resistance from the rest of the human species when time comes for full-scale battle.

His fingers closed around a length of pipe. He hefted it in his hand – it was a handy and effective club.

There will be others later, he thought. And they may think of something better. But this is the first skirmish and I will fall back in the best order that I can.

He held the pipe at the ready.

“Well, gentlemen?” he said.
If you ever chance to be in the Saket vicinity and see a wild-eyed messiah walking down the road with cricket bat in hand and many smashed iPhones in his wake, do come across and say hello.


  1. Your last paragraph reminded me of Ray Bradbury's 1953 short story "The Murderer" where the protagonist starts smashing the technology that enables a constant hubbub of communication in the world. I read that story in the post-cellphone era and was amazed by Bradbury's prescience. Change a few minor things, and he describes our current state of affairs perfectly. Except that nobody talks on phones anymore. I like my phone just fine, but I'm not addicted to it (or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest) and I hope I stay that way. Just club me with that cricket bat if I ever become more interested in my device than my lunch or dinner companion (shudder).

    I'm going to look for this Simak story. I guess I like my sci-fi vintage...what an amusing paradox.

    1. "Vintage Science Fiction", or better yet "Vintage Speculative Fiction" - ha! I'm sure there must be an anthology or two with those titles. Perhaps Harlan Ellison should do a Vintage Dangerous Visions next.

    2. P.S. Just discovered that entire issues of Galaxy magazine (and presumable a few other old sci-fi mags) are available online here. I might need to leave the internet permanently if I'm t avoid the temptation of spending all my time on that site.

  2. Very nice. Reminded me of some of the Philip K. Dick short stories like "The Defenders" and "Beyond Lies The Door". I'll have to look for the Simak story now. The Galaxy archive is great too (and a total time waster!), thanks for sharing :-)

    1. Thanks Kaushik - must get back to Philip K Dick sometime, it's been so long...