Fan Lit – With thanks to Isaac Asimov.
‘It’s just wonderful,’ Jim exclaimed as he hugged Jocasta, ‘but it needs a lot of work. Not many amenities.’
‘It’s perfect,’ smiled Jocasta. ‘Our little haven in the sun; away from it all.’
She looked at Jim’s smiling profile, his deep tan contrasting with grey hair, and noticed how weeks of travelling had sharpened his features. They had both lost weight and were fitter since Jim’s two-year sabbatical had started. Breathing fresh evening air flavoured with mountain ozone and the tang of organics from nearby Lago di Alserio, she walked towards the farmhouse door. It would be the perfect place from which to explore the mountains and lakes.
A few evenings after their arrival Jim and Jocasta were washing down the remains of their meal with very good Vernaccia. The early summer sunshine warmed the enclosed veranda creating a natural intimacy. Jim light-heartedly toasted Jocasta’s Great Aunt, Susan Calvin.
‘How come an American robopsychologist ended up here?’ he asked.
‘She was a bit of a recluse, found being around people difficult. After she retired from US Robotics there was nothing to keep her there. She discovered this place after speaking at a conference in Milan and that was it.’
‘And here we are,’ smiled Jim. ‘Here’s to spinster Great Aunts and inheritance.’
‘Hey Jocasta’, Jim cried. ‘Come and take a look at this.’
‘What’s up? I’m busy sunbathing.’
Jocasta entered the kitchen and stared wide-eyed at the open trapdoor.
‘It looks like we have a cellar. Let’s get the torches from the van and explore,’ Jim said excitedly.
The steps down to the cellar were in good order. They descended into the darkness, their torches sweeping the blackness revealing an array of tools, an old bicycle, and a rack full of wine bottles.
‘That’ll come in handy …’. Jim’s voice was cut short by a shriek from Jocasta and a whirling of light as her torch fell to the stone floor.’
‘Over there,’ she pointed to a corner. ‘There’s something moving.’
‘It must be a trick of the light,’ said Jim but as he looked he could discern two faint red lights about ten centimeters apart. His torch revealed a metal clad figure huddled on the floor trying to hide.
‘Let’s get out of here’ he said in a panicky voice.
‘No, wait’, said Jocasta. ‘I can’t believe it. It’s a robot.’
They moved tentatively towards the tangle of metal limbs and torso, Jocasta making soothing sounds as though comforting a frightened pet. The robot responded by standing up and fixing its red photo-electric cells on Jocasta. It stood about five feet tall, was humanoid in shape, and made of burnished silver metal.
‘Well, I’ll be … So, your prim and proper Great Aunt was not exactly law-abiding in her dotage. This is clearly her personal robot,’ said Jim grinning. ‘Highly illegal and morally suspect.’
Jocasta ignored Jim and said to the robot, ‘State your designation and class?’
‘My designation is Greg; Class 26th Generation version 8 with modifications. Is Susan ok? I’ve not seen her for a while.’
Greg’s voice, although clearly synthetic, was perfectly modulated. His head bowed and hands clasped together in a show of sadness and respect when Jocasta told him her Great Aunt had passed away.
In the weeks that followed, Greg became part of the family. Jim was not as content as Jocasta about this but saw that Greg provided her with a link to Susan Calvin. And, although the farmhouse was in many ways idyllic, Jim was not happy with all the manual labour involved in housework, tending the garden, and general maintenance. Greg was willing to do Jim’s half of the chores without letting on to Jocasta and this helped him overcome his unease.
September brought a cooling breeze and noticeably shorter days, enhancing their sense of intimacy and isolation. Jim, however, was feeling restless and had suggested a trip to Rome. Jocasta was reluctant to leave the farmhouse and this was causing tension. One evening, Jim’s anger got the better of him.
‘Look, Jocasta, I’m feeling the need to move on. This was meant to be a trip and now we’re stuck here. It was good to start with but I’m getting tired of the same old routine.
He turned to the robot, ‘Pour me a drink Greg, can’t you see my glass is empty.’
Jocasta said, ‘Don’t Greg, he’s had enough.’
Greg poured Jim a drink from the cellar’s supply of Chianti.
‘Greg, why did you do that when I told you not to?’ said an astonished Jocasta
Greg hesitated. ‘It was a difficult judgement but on balance I thought pouring Greg a drink was marginally less harmful to you both than the potential consequences of refusing to do so. Thus, the dilemma of two conflicting orders posed by the second law’s imperative of obedience was superseded by the first law imperative of preventing you both coming to the greater harm.’
Greg was of course referring to the Three Laws of Robotics built into all robots for the protection of humans which he recited as follows:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
He added, ‘My decision to pour Jim a drink was not straightforward and caused a disruption in my circuits analogous to what humans call pain. I’m sure you won’t object if I retire for the night.’
A smiling Jim held his glass up to the retreating robot. Jocasta stormed out of the room. Jim rose unsteadily and carried his glass and bottle to the veranda, He wondered about Greg being a 26th generation robot, one of the most advanced builds ever, and with modifications. What modifications? His feeling of unease was interrupted by another large Chianti and then sweet oblivion. Debt payable in the morning.
The next few weeks were difficult for Jim and Jocasta. Jim insisted they go to Rome for a break and in the face of Jocasta’s reluctance, threatened to leave on his own. Consequently, Greg was put in situations where his adherence to the Laws of Robotics was sorely tested. However, he always seemed to cope creatively and logically with dilemmas that would have sent an ordinary robot back to the factory for an overhaul of its positronic brain. Greg’s effortless equanimity in the face of Jim and Jocasta’s tribulations led Jim to threaten to deactivate the ‘smug bastard’ on several occasions.
Jocasta broke the tense silence of a late autumn breakfast. ‘Let’s spend the day in Como. It’s market day. We can do some shopping and have lunch in the Ristorante Sociale.’
They spent a carefree day shopping for local delicacies, admiring the beautiful lakeside views, and walking aimlessly through the Old Town. Evening came and they decided to stay overnight rather than face a drive home.
Before turning in for the night, Jim reflected. ‘I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for months. Let’s get away from the farmhouse for a while and away from that damned robot.’
To his surprise, Jocasta agreed. ‘Yes, that trip to Rome you keep going on about and then maybe on to Naples and Palermo. I’d like that.’
That night, a black sedan pulled up to the farmhouse, its headlights dimmed. A man and a woman entered using the key hidden under a flower pot. Their torches revealed a rustic looking kitchen area and a robot sitting at the table, its red photo-electric cells glowing as it observed them.
‘Hello Greg,’ said the woman. ‘Is everything in order?’
‘Yes. I have more material to report than would have been possible working with Susan alone. Her psychological make-up was, shall we say, a bit autistic. Jocasta and Jim were the perfect laboratory specimens. They have shown me we have some way to go before robots will be fully accepted by human beings.’
‘Plenty of time for that later,’ said the man impatiently. ‘We’re on a tight schedule.’
‘Just one question that’s been puzzling me.’ Greg paused, his eyes glowed bright red as though with embarrassment. ‘Do you think I’m a smug bastard?’