The Big Engine

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Have you found out about the Big Engine? It's all around us, you know--can't you hear it even now?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

There are all sorts of screwy theories (the Professor said) of what makes the wheels of the world go round. There’s a boy in Chicago who thinks we’re all of us just the thoughts of a green cat; when the green cat dies we’ll all puff to nothing like smoke. There’s a man in the west who thinks all women are witches and run the world by conjure magic. There’s a man in the east who believes all rich people belong to a secret society that’s a lot tighter and tougher than the Mafia and that has a monopoly of power-secrets and pleasure-secrets other people don’t dream exist.

Me, I think the wheels of the world just go. I decided that forty years ago and I’ve never since seen or heard or read anything to make me change my mind.

I was a stoker on a lake boat then (the Professor continued, delicately sipping smoke from his long thin cigarette). I was as stupid as they make them, but I liked to think. Whenever I’d get a chance I’d go to one of the big libraries and make them get me all sorts of books. That was how guys started calling me the Professor. I’d get books on philosophy, metaphysics, science, even religion. I’d read them and try to figure out the world. What was it all about, anyway? Why was I here? What was the point in the whole business of getting born and working and dying? What was the use of it? Why’d it have to go on and on?

And why’d it have to be so complicated?

Why all the building and tearing down? Why’d there have to be cities, with crowded streets and horse cars and cable cars and electric cars and big open-work steel boxes built to the sky to be hung with stone and wood--my closest friend got killed falling off one of those steel boxkites. Shouldn’t there be some simpler way of doing it all? Why did things have to be so mixed up that a man like myself couldn’t have a single clear decent thought?

More than that, why weren’t people a real part of the world? Why didn’t they show more honest-to-God response? When you slept with a woman, why was it something you had and she didn’t? Why, when you went to a prize fight, were the bruisers only so much meat, and the crowd a lot of little screaming popinjays? Why was a war nothing but blather and blowup and bother? Why’d everybody have to go through their whole lives so dead, doing everything so methodical and prissy like a Sunday School picnic or an orphan’s parade?


And then, when I was reading one of the science books, it came to me. The answer was all there, printed out plain to see only nobody saw it. It was just this: Nobody was really alive.

Back of other people’s foreheads there weren’t any real thoughts or minds, or love or fear, to explain things. The whole universe--stars and men and dirt and worms and atoms, the whole shooting match--was just one great big engine. It didn’t take mind or life or anything else to run the engine. It just ran.

Now one thing about science. It doesn’t lie. Those men who wrote those science books that showed me the answer, they had no more minds than anybody else. Just darkness in their brains, but because they were machines built to use science, they couldn’t help but get the right answers. They were like the electric brains they’ve got now, but hadn’t then, that give out the right answer when you feed in the question. I’d like to feed in the question, “What’s Life?” to one of those machines and see what came out. Just figures, I suppose. I read somewhere that if a billion monkeys had typewriters and kept pecking away at them they’d eventually turn out all the Encyclopedia Brittanica in trillions and trillions of years. Well, they’ve done it all right, and in jig time.

They’re doing it now.

A lot of philosophy and psychology books I worked through really fit in beautifully. There was Watson’s Behaviorism telling how we needn’t even assume that people are conscious to explain their actions. There was Leibitz’s Monadology, with its theory that we’re all of us lonely atoms that are completely out of touch and don’t effect each other in the slightest, but only seem to ... because all our little clockwork motors were started at the same time in pre-established harmony. We seem to be responding to each other, but actually we’re just a bunch of wooden-minded puppets. Jerk one puppet up into the flies and the others go on acting as if exactly nothing at all had happened.

So there it was all laid out for me (the Professor went on, carefully pinching out the end of his cigarette). That was why there was no honest-to-God response in people. They were machines.

The fighters were machines made for fighting. The people that watched them were machines for stamping and screaming and swearing. The bankers had banking cogs in their bellies, the crooks had crooked cams. A woman was just a loving machine, all nicely adjusted to give you a good time (sometimes!) but the farthest star was nearer to you than the mind behind that mouth you kissed.

See what I mean? People just machines, set to do a certain job and then quietly rust away. If you kept on being the machine you were supposed to be, well and good. Then your actions fitted with other people’s. But if you didn’t, if you started doing something else, then the others didn’t respond. They just went on doing what was called for.

It wouldn’t matter what you did, they’d just go on making the motions they were set to make. They might be set to make love, and you might decide you wanted to fight. They’d go on making love while you fought them. Or it might happen the other way--seems to, more often!

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

For the rest of this story you need to be logged in: Log In or Register for a Free account