What Do You Read?

by Boyd Ellanby

Copyright© 2018 by Boyd Ellanby

Science Fiction Story: Writers have long dreamed of a plot machine, but the machines in Script-Lab did much more than plot the story--they wrote it. Why bother with human writers when the machines did the job so much faster and better?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Herbert would have preferred the seclusion of a coptor-taxi, but he knew he could not afford it. The Bureau paid its writers adequately, but not enough to make them comfortable in taxis. In front of his apartment house, he took the escalator to the Airway. It must have been pleasant, he thought as he stepped onto the moving sidewalk, to be a writer in the days when they were permitted to receive royalties and, presumably, to afford taxi fare.

On the rare occasions when he was forced to travel in the city, he usually tried to insulate himself from the Airway crowds by trying to construct new plots for his fiction. In his younger days, of course, he had occupied the time in reading the classics, but lately, so great was the confusion of the city, he preferred to close his eyes, and try to devise a reverse twist for one of his old stories.

Today, he found it harder than usual to concentrate. The Airway was crowded, and he had never heard the people so noisy. Up ahead half a block, there was a sharp scream. Herbert opened his eyes and peered ahead to see what had happened. Someone had been pushed through the railing of the Airway, and as his section rolled on and passed, he could see lying on the pavement below the body of a young cripple, his hands still holding a broken crutch.

Herbert shuddered. He felt sick, and closed his eyes again.

“Wonder how that happened?” said the man in front of him.

“He probably got in the way,” said a girl, callously.

The man ahead made no comment, and Herbert dismissed his own puzzlement. Could he make a plot out of this incident of the crippled boy? he wondered.

He shifted to the slower track, descended the escalator, and stepped onto the street across from the Bureau of Public Entertainment. He had to wait a moment, for an ambulance was clanging down the street; then he crossed to the stone-faced building.

As he rode up the elevator, he wondered again why John had ordered him to come to lunch. He realized that he was no longer a young man, but he certainly did not feel ready to be pensioned. And in the last year he had actually written more fiction than in any other year of his life. Very little of it had been used, for some reason, but story for story he thought it matched any of his previous output.

Ludwig received him with little ceremony. “Sit down, Herbert. It was good of you to come. Miss Dodson,” he called through the intercom, “this is strictly off the air. Nothing is to be recorded. Is that clear?”

“Well, John,” said Carre. “You’re looking harassed, if I may say so. Are they working you too hard? Or are you just faced with the unpleasant job of firing an old friend? I realize, of course, that AFE aren’t using much of my stuff just now.”

Ludwig smiled unhappily and shook his head. “I’m not planning to fire you, Herbert. But you know, of course, that you’re in the same boat with the other Writers, and that boat is in choppy waters. Frankly, I’m not very happy about the situation. The five-year experimental period is coming to an end. This Bureau has the job of providing entertainment, and that includes, among many other categories, literature. Books, articles, and stories. And I’m faced with a difficult decision: shall we employ Writers, or use Script-Lab? You are only one of the many people we support, of course, and both you and Script-Lab furnish material to Adult Fiction, Earth, who distribute it as they see fit.”

Herbert Carre nibbled at his graying moustache. “I know. And for the last year, for some reason, AFE has not seen fit to use much of my stuff. And yet it’s no different. I write just the same sort of thing I always did.”

“Tastes change, Herbert. Script-Lab reports that the public seem to prefer the machine-made stories. I have a week to make a definite decision, and I’m particularly anxious to finish the job because I’ve been asked to transfer, at the earliest possible moment, to the Bureau of Public Safety. The Committee are inclined, on the whole, to favor the enlarging of Script-Lab, and transferring all the Writers to some other department.”

“Great Gamma! You mean all literature will be machine-made from now on?”

“Don’t get excited, Herb! That’s what I’ve got to decide. But if they can really write it just as well, why not? You remember Hartridge, don’t you? Class behind me at college, majored in electronics? He’s in charge of the machine experiment and he’s about convinced us that his machines can turn out manuscripts at lower cost, more rapidly and of better quality than you Writers can. And he says the public like his product better. Have you seen any of it?”

“No,” said Carre, “I don’t know that I have. You know I never read anything but the classics, for pleasure; nothing later than Thackeray, or, at the latest, James Joyce. What principle do they work on?”

“I’m not an electronics man. Hartridge tells me they are specially sensitive blocks of tubes, and that memory, including all the basic plots of fiction, and all the basic varieties of dialog have been built into them.”

Carre shuddered. “I will never believe, in the face of any evidence, that machines can take the place of human writers. What machine could have written ‘Alice’?”

“Calm down, Herbert. I want your help. I haven’t followed developments since the days of the early electronic computers, and I haven’t time for studying them now. And, unfortunately, I never read modern fiction any more--no time for anything but official reports. Now I’ve always respected your judgment. I want your opinion of the adequacy of the material put out by Script-Lab.”

“Have you forgotten,” said Carre, “that I am a Writer? Aren’t you afraid of a biased report?”

“Not from you. I need a competent judge. And if you are forced to bring in a favorable report, you know I’d find you a place in some other field. I might even get you a pension.”

“I hope not. Not yet.”

“Go over and see Hartridge, look over his machines, and bring me a critical estimate of the quality of their work--not just literary quality, of course; we’re interested also in entertainment value. Don’t be prejudiced. I imagine you’d be the last to deny that writing can be damned hard work.”

“You’re right,” said Carre. “I would be the last person to deny it. Somehow, I’ve always liked the work, but if the machines can really take our place, I will try to bow out gracefully.”

Once again Carre took the escalator to the Airway and moved across the city. He tried to think of fiction plots, but he could not control his mind. He was worried. The people standing near him were quarreling, their shrill voices hurt his ears, and the crowd was so dense that he could not move away.

Age, he feared, was making him irritable. As he approached his station, he pushed towards the escalator. He brushed against a woman who was reading a plastibacked book. She looked up, frowned, and then stamped viciously on his extended foot. Half-stunned with pain and amazement, Herbert managed to get to the escalator, went down, and limped slowly through the doorway of Computer House. What had possessed the woman? he wondered. He’d barely brushed her sleeve, in passing.

He stood before the door labelled “Manuscript Laboratory: Dr. Philip Hartridge,” and pushed the button. The door opened, but two husky guards with pistols in hand blocked his entrance.

“Your name, please, and your business?”

Herbert fought a tendency to stammer. His foot still hurt him, he had developed a headache, and he felt bewildered.

“I just want--My name is Herbert Carre and I want to see Dr. Hartridge. Why, we’ve known each other for years!”

“Identification, please?”

They examined his identity card and his Bureau papers, and nodded. Then one returned his pistol to its holster and approached him.

“Just as a formality, if you please. Dr. Hartridge apologizes for this.” He ran his hands over Herbert’s shabby blouse and trousers, then stepped back.

“That’s all, Mr. Carre,” he said. “You can go in.” They preceded him into the reception room, advanced to the rear wall and pushed a series of buttons in a complex pattern. A double door, made of metal instead of the innocent oak it had seemed to be, slowly swung open.

Philip Hartridge rose from his desk and extended his hand.

“Awfully good to see you, Carre,” he said. “It must have been nearly ten years. Sorry you’ve never come over to see us sooner. We’re very proud of Script-Lab. How are things?”

“Not bad,” said Herbert. “I’m still feeling overwhelmed by the elaborate protective system you have here. What explains the body-guards? I didn’t suppose this laboratory was classified.”

Hartridge leaned back in his chair. “It’s not classified. Those men are here to protect me from possible violence.”

“Violence? Great Gamma, do you mean personal threats?”

“Yes. Only last week, my ‘coptor exploded a few minutes after I started the motor. By a lucky chance, I had gone back to the house to get my brief-case. But someone had certainly tried to kill me.”

“Why on earth, Hartridge, should some one--”

“It might be one of several people,” he said. “But I think it’s my brother Ben. He would, of course, like to have my share of the money our father left us. But I’ll take care he doesn’t get it.” He grinned, and patted his hip. “It’s rather more likely to be the other way around. But we won’t waste time in trivialities, Carre. Ludwig called me. I know you want to see our set-up here. Come in and see the machines.”

They walked through another set of double doors and into the Laboratory.

The noise was deafening. Twenty enormous machines sat in the room. Each was contained in a dull plastic case, and the control panels were a maze of dials, buttons, and red and green indicator lights. An electric typewriter was connected to and operated by each machine, and through each typewriter ran an endless roll of paper, which emerged to be cut off into eleven-inch lengths by automatic knives.

“How do you stand the noise?” asked Carre. “Why don’t you use Silent Typers?”

“Oh, the machines don’t mind the noise. Silent Typers would be an unnecessary expense, and as a matter of fact, I’ve come to like the sound. It’s soothing, after a time.”

Carre strolled slowly, rather mournfully, from one monster to another, glancing at the emerging manuscripts.

“The rate of output,” said Hartridge, “is not less than a hundred words a minute, and they never have to stop to look up their facts, or to struggle with a balky plot. Can you do as well?”

“I wish I could,” said Carre. “I know so little about electronics. Do the machines use much current?”

“No, that’s another of their virtues, they’re very economical. The tubes are so efficient that all twenty machines are run from this one source, right here--Don’t touch it! It’s not ordinary house current, you know. We start with eight thousand volts, --it saves on metal and transformers.”

Herbert found it hard to think against the clatter of the typewriters. “I’m ashamed to admit,” he said, “that I feel a kind of envy, they seem to compose with such ease.”

Hartridge laughed. “No trouble at all! I tell you, my pretty typewriters are going to put you out of business. You can see for yourself, Carre, that there’s no need for you human writers. We are doing a perfect job here, and we could supply all the material--novels, stories, fact articles, biographies--that the country could read. AFE has been using more and more of our scripts, as you probably know.”

“I know.”

“I can’t say exactly why it is, but we do seem to be able to hit the public taste better than you Writers.” He reached over and patted one of the plastic cases, as though it had been an affectionate dog.

“Do your machines do nothing but write new material?” asked Carre, as he strolled on.

“That depends on the demand. Sometimes we have a call for some out-of-print item, or some work which is so hard to get hold of that we simply have the machines re-do it. After Number Twelve, here, produced the entire English translation of ‘War and Peace’ without a single semantic error, we were not afraid to trust them with anything. As a matter of fact, we’ve got Number Eight re-writing some nineteenth-century items that have not been available for years--things that were destroyed or banned during the Atomic Wars, but which the present government finds acceptable. Would you like to see?”

Carre stood in front of Number Eight in fascination as the metal arms hammered out the words and lines. After a moment, he frowned. “I seem to remember this! I must have read it in my early boyhood. It seems so long ago. Joan of Arc! But I don’t remember its happening just this way.”

“Just goes to show you can’t trust your memory, Carre. You know the machines are perfectly logical, and they can’t make a mistake.”

“No, of course not. Odd, though.” He brushed his hand over a forehead grown wet.

The knife flashed down, cut the paper, and the page fell into its basket. Hartridge picked it up.

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