I stretched myself in the chair and yawned. Then I said, “What happened to conversations? Why don’t people talk anymore, Bob?”
He looked at me. “Yes,” he said, as though he had been thinking about the same thing himself. “When I was newly made, back in Cleveland, there was more of it than now. At the automobile factories there were still a few humans working along with the robots, and they would get together – five or six at a time – and talk. I would see them doing it.”
“What happened?” I said. “I’ve never seen groups of people talking. Maybe sometimes in twos – but then very seldom.”
“I’m not sure,” Bob said. “The perfecting of drugs had much to do with it. And the inwardness. I suppose Privacy rules reinforced it.” He looked at me thoughtfully. Sometimes Bob was more human than any human I have known, except maybe Simon. “Privacy and Mandatory Politeness were invented by one of my fellow Make Nines. He felt it was what people really wanted, once they had the drugs to occupy themselves with. And it nearly put a stop to crime. People used to commit a lot of crimes. They would steal from one another and do violent things to one another’s bodies.”
“I know,” I said, not even wanting to think about it. “I’ve seen television…”
He nodded. “When I was first awakened into life – if what I have may be called life – I was taught mathematics. That was done by a Make Seven named Thomas. I enjoyed talking with him. And I enjoy talking to you.” He was looking out the window as he said this, into a moonless night.
“Yes,” I said. “And I like talking to you. But what happened? Why did talking – and reading and writing – die out?”
He was silent for what seemed to be a long while. Then he ran his fingers through his hair and began to talk, softly. “When I was learning Industrial Management, I was shown films on all aspects of the Automobile Monopoly. I was being trained to be a major executive – which was what Make Nines were originally for – and I was shown everything from the film and tape and voice recording files of General Motors and Ford and Chrysler and Sikorsky. One of the films showed a big silver car going down an empty highway silently and smoothly, like an apparition – or a dream. It was an ancient gasoline – powered car, made before the Death of Oil and long before the Nuclear Battery Age.”
“The Death of Oil?”
“Yes. When gasoline had become more expensive than whiskey, and most people stayed home. That was the Death of Oil. It happened in what was called the twenty-first century. Then there were the Energy Wars. And then Solange was made. He was the first of the Make Nines and strongly programmed – as I was not – to give mankind what it wanted to have. Solange invented the nuclear battery. Controlled fusion; safe, clean, and limitless. He learned to power his own body with it, and all the rest of us were built afterward for nuclear power. One battery lasts me for nine blues.“
“Was Solange black?” I said.
“No. He was very white—with blue eyes.”
I got up to make myself some coffee. “Why are you black?” I said.
He didn’t answer until I was pouring the hot water onto the coffee powder. “I have never known why,” he said. “I think I am the only black robot ever made.”
I brought my coffee over and sat down again. “What about that film?” I said. “The one with the car.”
“There was just one man in it,” he said. “A man with a pastel blue sport shirt and gray polyester trousers. He had the windows rolled up and the stereo playing and the air conditioner and the cruise control on. His hands were white and soft and held the steering wheel lightly. And his face – oh, his face! – was as vacant as the moon.”
I was unsure of what he was trying to say. “When I was a little girl and away from the dormitories for the first time, I would get very impatient and nervous and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. And Simon would say, ‘Just be quiet and let life happen to you,’ and I would try to do that. Was that what the man in the car was doing?”
“No,” Spofforth said. He stood up and stretched his arms out, just as a man would do. “On the contrary. No life was happening to him at all. He was supposed to have been ‘free’; but nothing was happening. No one knew his name, but one of the humans would call him Daniel Boone – the last frontiersman. There was a soundtrack with the film, with a deep, authoritarian, masculine voice saying, ‘Be free and alive and let your spirit soar with the Open Road!’ And down the empty road he went, at seventy miles an hour, insulated from the outside air, insulated as far as possible even from the sounds of his own vehicle’s moving down that empty road. The American Individualist, the Free Spirit. The Frontiersman. With a human face indistinguishable from that of a moron robot. And at his home or his motel he had television to keep the world away. And pills in his pocket. And the stereo. And the pictures in the magazines he looked at, with food and sex better and brighter than in life.”
Bob was pacing up and down the floor, barefoot. “Sit down, Bob,” I said, and then, “How did all that get started? The cars – the controlled environment?”
He sat down, took a partly smoked joint from his shirt pocket and lit it. “There was a lot of money to be made from cars – from making them and selling them. And when television came it was one of the greatest sources of profit ever invented. And there was more than that; something very deep in humanity responded to the car, to the television set, to the drugs.
“When the drugs and the television were perfected by the computers that made and distributed them, the cars were no longer necessary. And since no one had devised a way of making cars safe in the hands of a human driver, it was decided to discontinue them.”
“Who made that decision?” I said.
“I did. Solange and I. It was the last time I saw him. He threw himself off a building.”
“Jesus,” I said. And then, “When I was a little girl there were no cars. But Simon could remember them. So that was when thought buses were invented?”
“No. Thought buses had been around since the twenty-second century. In fact there had been buses, driven by human drivers, in the twentieth. And trolley cars and trains. Most big cities in North America had what were called streetcars at the start of the twentieth century.”
“What happened to them?”
“The automobile companies got rid of them. Bribes were paid to city managers to tear up the streetcar tracks, and advertisements were bought in newspapers to convince the public that it should be done. So more cars could be sold, and more oil would be made into gasoline, to be burned in the cars. So that corporations could grow, and so a few people could become incredibly rich, and have servants, and live in mansions. It changed the life of mankind more radically than the printing press. It created suburbs and a hundred other dependencies -sexual and economic and narcotic – upon the automobile. And the automobile prepared the way for the more profound – more inward – dependencies upon television and then robots and, finally, the ultimate and predictable conclusion to all of it: the perfection of the chemistry of mind. The drugs your fellow humans use are named after twentieth-century ones; but they are far more potent, far better at what they do, and they are all made and distributed – distributed everywhere there are human beings – by automatic equipment.“ He looked over at me from his armchair. ”It all began, I suppose, with learning to build fires – to warm the cave and keep the predators out. And it ended with time-release Valium.“
I looked at him for a minute. “I don’t take Valium,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “That’s why I took you away from Paul. That and the baby you’re going to have.”
“I understand about the baby. You want to play house. But I didn’t know the drugs – or the lack of them – had anything to do with it.”
He shook his head at me, scoldingly. “It should be obvious,” he said, “I wanted a woman I could talk to. And could fall in love with.”
I stared at him. “Fall in love?” I said finally.
“Certainly. Why not?”
I started to answer that, but did not. Why couldn’t he fall in love if he wanted to? “Did you?” I said.
He looked at me for a moment and then ground his joint out in an ashtray. “Yes, I did,” he said. “Unfortunately.”
Fall in love. The oddness of the phrase – the ancient phrase – occupied my attention for a moment there in the living room in the middle of the night. There was something about the words that struck me. And then I realized that I had never heard them spoken before; they were something from silent films and from books and not from the life that I knew. I had heard Simon say once, “Love is a swindle,” and that was his only use of the word that I can recall. And “love” wasn’t even a part of our vocabularies at the dormitories, where they taught us: “Quick sex is best.” But that was all. And here this robot with his sad and youthful face and his long, long history and his deep and gentle voice was telling me that he had let himself fall in love with me.
My coffee was getting cold. I sipped from it a moment and then said, “What do you mean by ‘love’?”
He did not reply for a long time. Then he said, “Flutterings in the stomach. And about the heart. Wishing for your being happy. An obsession with you, with the way your chin tilts and your eyes at times stare. The way your hand holds that coffee cup. Hearing you snoring at night while I sit here.”
I was shocked. They were words of a kind I had read at times and had ignored. I knew without thinking that they had something to do with sex and with the families that had been a part of the ancient world; but they were never a part of my life. And how could they be a part of the “life” of this manufactured person, this elegant humanoid with its brown skin and kinky keratinoid hair? This false man, without a mother to gender him, without a penis; unable to eat food or drink water – a battery-powered doll with soulful brown eyes. What was this business of love he was speaking of – some of the madness, the dementia that had haunted his manufacture and the whole making of that last Promethean strain of synthetic intelligences, that mad over-humanness of the doomed series of Make Nines?
And yet, looking at him, I could have kissed him. Could have embraced his broad, handsome back and pressed my mouth against his moist lips.
And then I found that – oh, my good lord Jesus Christ – I was crying. Tears were running down my face freely. I let my face fall wet into my open hands and sobbed the way I had sobbed as a child when I learned that I was alone in the world. It was like a great gust of warm wind blowing through me.
After crying I felt subdued, calm. I looked at Bob. His face was calm, restful, as I felt mine was. “Have you ever done this before?” I said. “Fallen in love?”
“Yes. When I was… when I was young. There were human women, back then, who were undrugged. I loved one of them. There was something in her face, sometimes… But I never tried to live with a woman before. The way we are living now.”
“Why me?” I said. “I was happy enough with Paul. We would have started a family. Why did you have to fall in love with me?”
He looked at me. “You’re the last one,” he said. “The last before I die. I wanted to recover my buried life. This erased part of my memory. I would like to know, before I die, what it was like to be the human being I have tried to be all my life.“ He looked away from me, out the window. ”Besides, prison will be good for Paul. If he grows up enough he’ll escape. Nothing works very well in the world anymore; most of the machines and most of the robots are breaking down. If he wants to get out of prison he will.“
“Have you remembered anything?” I said. “Since we’ve been living together? Have you filled in any of the blank spaces in your brain?”
He shook his head. “No, I haven’t. Not a one.”
I nodded. “Bob,” I said. “You ought to memorize your life, the way I am doing. You ought to dictate your whole story into a recorder. I could write it down for you, and teach you how to read it.”
He looked back toward me, and his face now seemed very old and sad. “I have no need to, Mary. I can’t forget my life. I have no means of forgetting. That was left out.”