Automata (H. Bruce Franklin)

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Franklin, H. Bruce. "Automata." Introductory section essay in different versions in difference editions of Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, which see, along with Franklin's sections in Future Perfect on "Herman Melville and Science Fiction" and "Humans as Machines."

From the Revised Edition of Future Perfect, 1966 f.

Melville's "The Bell-Tower," published during the first great surge of industrialism in the United States, presents a machine that resembles a man. Thirty-five years later, in 1890, appeared a story by Frederic Jesup Stimson entitled "Dr. Materialismus" ["most material"] in which a man is reduced to a machine. Both stories are products of modern industrial society, and both raise one of the main questions of the age of the factory system, What precisely is the difference between human beings and mechanisms? But whereas Melville had shown chattel slavery and capitalism as the forces moving to replace people with machines, Stimson see socialism, the main anti-capitalist movement, as the force striving to turn human beings into machines. (pp. 166-67)

  • * *

Throughout his [Stimson's] public career [lawyer, professor, ambassador], and in his seven volumes of political and legal theory, he was an ardent defender of capitalism as the highest form of human society.

And this is his underlying purpose in "Dr. Materialismus" whose sinister villain is an archetypal "German professor, scientist, socialist" who sneeringly devises an apparatus to prove that people are nothing but machines. The science-fiction framework bears a startling resemblance to that in "The Maxwell Equations," a 1960 story by Anatoly Dnieprov, a Soviet physicist who works in, and writes science fiction about, cyybernetics. Both "Dr. Materialismus" and "The Maxwell Equations" have their narrator becoming something like a machine by being subjected to an apparatus which produces a range of physical frequencies and thus stimulates all kinds of human emotions artificially. Dnieprov's story is of course more realistic technically; the main difference, however, is that in his tale it is not a socialist but a capitalist who is running the machine, and this villain's motive is not to seduce the heroine but to make money. (p. 167).

Franklin also deals with the sexism in "Dr. Materialismus."


From the Revised and Expanded edition of Future Perfect (1995):

The first major work of science fiction in the [19th] century, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), while not explicitly concerned with machines, bequeathed two splendid symbols of the relations between machines and people. One appears in the moster created by the title character, the other in the subtitle. One metaphor for the automaton-maker is Frankenstein, the other is the modern Prometheus. Fiction about automata provided ways to dramatize the dialectic of these conflicting metaphors.

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in nineteenth-century America, increasing numbers of fictional automata marched along with it. By 1874 mechanical men had become so commonplace that an "android" appears as parody in Edward Page Mitchell's dream spoof "The Tachypomp." Some were vehicles of terror, such as the robot in H. D. Jenkin's "Automaton of Dobello" (Lakeside, 1872). Others were potent agents of progress, such as in William Douglas O'Connor's "The Brazen Android" (Atlantic Monthly, 1891), where an "android" equipped with a talking machine brings democracy into thirteenth-century England. (p. [131])

On the more direct political issue of humans put out of work by machines and automation, Franklin cites "Recollection of Six Days' Journey in the Moon" (sic on the "in"), supposedly by "An Aerio-Nautical Man," and published, "in the proslavery Southern Literary Messenger in 1844" (which Franklin notes as the year of Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts).[1][2] In "Recollection," the Aerio-Nautical Man arrives on the Moon and "voyages to 'The Isle of Engines' via a 'magnetic steamboat'" that can move 100 miles an hour. What he finds, Franklin gives in a substantial quote, which we'll repeat since it's unlikely that even in the days of digital books readers can easily find this story.

Every thing [sic: two words] is done there by machinery; and the men themselves, if not the machines, are as much their slaves, as the genius of Aladdin's lamp. These machines have in great measure taken the place of men, and snatched the bread from their mouths, because they work so much cheaper and faster. I saw several which I was assured by the proprietor of a manufactory who was reckoned worth millions, could do the work of a thousand men. I asked what became of the thousand in the mean time [sic: two words]; upon which he entered into a long dissertation to prove, that they were infinitely benefitted [sic: 2 "t's"] by the cheapness of every thing occasioned by these labor-saving machines. I took the liberty of observing that if they could get no work, or were deprived of its adequate rewards, it was of little consequence to them that things were cheap, as they would have no money to purchase them. (Franklin p. 132)

As well as Marx, Franklin refers to the Luddites (p. 131).[3]

RDE, finishing, 31Aug23. 1Sep23