The story starts out with the usual environmental stuff. There are flying cars, lots of things that start with “vid”, like vid-phones, and vid-screens, and stuff like that, so you know you’re in the future — and soon enough you know you’re on another planet. But it’s science fiction, not fantasy, so it’s, like, Mars or Vega 12 or something, and the living conditions suck because everyone lives in dome house things and has crappy jobs like miners or civil service administrators, and who more than anything wish they could be back on Earth, but there’s just not enough room. Or the pollution was out of control, and they dream of a place like old Earth. Or they dream of going back to Earth and destroying the robots once and for all. It doesn’t really matter which, at least not yet.
Anyway, by this point you are painfully aware that the story takes place in a sort of dystopian near future on another planet reasonably close to Earth. Fortunately, you haven’t been subjected to lots of made up words like Esnibni and Qurto’in that you have to fight though to figure out what anything means, although you have been subjected to lots of technobabble, such as the aforementioned vid-words, and phrases like gravimetric sensors and disruption field generators.
That’s the setting for the story, more or less. Jerry and Baker are sitting on the couch in Jerry’s house dome thing drinking the 22nd century equivalent of alcohol and enjoying the deleterious effects of what appears to be a cross between chewing tobacco and opium.
“Friend, this place is a wreck. Why don’t you clean it up?”
“Tell it to my wife”
This is a joke. Jerry doesn’t have a wife, and is making a snide reference to former state of marital bliss in which he had a good job and a clean house on a pleasant planet, and was, of course, entirely miserable.
Baker next said, “Garbage day is only a week away. Are you gonna make it?”
To which Jerry replied, “Nah. Maybe next year”
Here Jerry and Baker are off-handedly discussing the natural results of Jerry’s fortunes, or more specifically lack thereof, namely that he can’t afford weekly garbage pickups and has to rely on the annual waste disposal service provided free of charge by the planetary government.
Garbage will soon become a major theme. The tenuous plot will rest on the notion that unscrupulous characters are using the garbage industry to destroy the world. We will discuss disposal techniques, watch it be collected and disposed of, and even take a ride on a garbage scowl. No doubt we will at some point wish this piece of tripe itself was with our own garbage, rather than just about it, and on its way to the dump where we could forget about it forever.
No such luck.
Dr. Jerry Strohman’s dome was crowded at best. The place had really only one room, although there was a nook for the kitchen unit, such as it was – an outdated piece of equipment that propagated the idea that painfully tasteless food was better than no food at all. The couch was covered in dirty clothes, the coffee table in dirty dishes, the ashtrays with cigarette butts, and the floor, well, let’s just say there wasn’t much of it left to see. Facing the table and couch, almost against the opposite wall was an armchair covered in fake leather with cigarette burns and rips on the arms and back. It blocked the Murphy bed from coming down, which was just as well, as Jerry always slept on the couch anyway.
Dr. Caldonium Baker made himself comfortable in the armchair holding his half full glass of tuber-rye, with Jerry facing him from across the room, his mind a galaxy away. Jerry’s hand held about half of a green leaf, brown around the edges, which had started at the size of a banana frond. He was ripping it into strips and putting it into a bowl of what looked like dirty water. Next to the bowl laid another, this one filled with chewed and discarded pieces similar in size to the ones Jerry was now making. The dirty water would occasionally bubble, but mostly it just sat and thickened around the fresh supply of leaf cuts.
Tuber-rye is in many ways definitive of space language. In this case, the goal is to make us feel at home and other worldly at the same time, so we get a familiar alcoholic beverage for these gentlemen to drink with a strange and other-worldly flavor. The beverage is made from a locally grown tuber, the name of which we have been fortunately been spared from learning. After all, we can only remember so many things, and there is still much story ahead of us.
Also local are the as yet, but not indefinitely to remain, unnamed leaves Jerry and Baker are chewing. It helps to, as they say, “pass the time”.
Facing the couch was a large vid-screen that covered most of the wall. There was a movie showing, a western, with the sound turned down low. Every once in a while, the shooting would start, and Jerry would look up. Mostly, though, he just ignored it. Baker, facing away from the vid, thumbed through an old scientific journal looking for something, anything, he had missed the first hundred times he had read it. These nights were often tedious for Baker. He had never held Jerry’s capacity to just tune out except on rare occasions. Mostly, he just sat up with Jerry, nursed a drink and a couple of leaves over the course of the night, and looked for minor discoveries to occupy his mind. Tonight he had found a decades old article about a new life form discovered on Persephone 6 that ingested heat and expelled various gasses. He wondered if any useful applications had been found for it in the last 12 years, and was working through some of the implications in his mind when Jerry threw his unbreakable glass at the vid, spewing tuber-rye across the room.
For the briefest of moments, Baker looked up at Jerry. Then, inevitably, he turned back to the journal. Over the years, he had become used to these outbursts to the point that they barely even registered with him anymore. The remnants of Jerry’s drink dripped slowly down the wall, creating a new layer of icicles that joined the old ones, gradually building up a syrupy distortion to the vids behind them. The vid-screen had so many layers of Jerry’s outbursts stuck to it, it was a wonder they could watch a vid at all.
The glass bounced around a bit, and came to a stop on an old sock.
“I used to be a stinkin’ scientist, Baker. I used to do something with my life. And look at me now.”
Baker, of course, did not reply, and Jerry dragged himself out of his chair, walked over, grabbed Baker's arms, stood him up, shook him, and shouted, “LOOK AT ME! I’m washed up stoner a billion miles from home, mining someone else’s land on this hell hole of a planet, and for what?” He shook him again. “FOR WHAT!”
“Lay off, Doctor.” Baker said as he shook himself free and sat back in the chair. He took a cigarette from Jerry’s half-empty pack on the table, lit it, and took a light drag. “You know why you’re here.”
Jerry, dispirited as usual, dragged himself back to the couch where he finished ripping up the leaf, spit the one in his mouth into the second bowl, and took another from the first. After a short while, he began to shake his head back and forth, looked up at Baker, and spoke quietly, but distinctly. “No. I don’t. Really. Tell me.”
Baker stared back. “Are we really doing this? Again? Tonight?”
Jerry, silent, waited without taking his eyes off him. Then, with mild resolution, got up, walked to the vid-screen control on the wall next to it, and turned it off.
He turned to face Baker and said, “Yes. We are. We are doing this tonight. Tell me what the hell I did to deserve this?”
Baker, back in his chair, met as much of Jerry’s eyes as he could behind Jerry’s overgrown mop of curly hair, but didn’t rise up. He waited for Jerry to back down and move back to his usual spot, a spot on the couch so worn with Jerry’s presence that it held a permanent curve custom shaped for Jerry’s body. Instead, Jerry walked to the kitchen unit in the nook, and made himself another drink.
“Jerry, when you walked into the Old Man’s office and told him his business was destroying the universe as we know it, when you told him the only way for him to avoid destroying the world was to give up everything, give up his money, his power, and let’s not forget his darling little girl, when you played your last worthless card and told him to roll over and play dead, WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN?”
Jerry turned from the nook, full glass in his hand and drank nearly half at one go. Still standing, he spoke in a voice that showed just how much he had lost over the last 12 years, how much he had given up. The pride was gone. The surety was gone. Everything that had made him what he formerly would have called a man had faded away, only to be replaced by a weary acceptance of what he now thought of as his fate. He was resigned, and it showed in his voice.
“But he is destroying the universe as we know it, right?”
“Yes, Jerry,” Baker replied, also resolved, but with perhaps a little more natural strength, “I suppose he is”.
Much of the exposition in this story is dragged out in brutally long conversations so obviously designed to wedge it in that we can barely make it through. Unfortunately, without the background, the story makes even less sense, so exposition we must have, if only in a truncated form.
It turns out that Jerry was a paid scientist at a mega-business within the aforementioned waste disposal industry, and in clear violation of his better interests, spoke truth to power. We will learn more about that later. For now it is enough to know that for his lapse in judgment he was exiled to a distant planet where the only mode of survival is a sort of involuntary servitude to the local mining industry.
The sophisticated reader, if he were to bother with this story at all, might ask what mineral it was that Jerry involuntarily spent his days trying to unearth, or in this case un-whatever-planet-he’s-actually-on, but such a reader would be disappointed. While he is mining some sort of space stuff that undoubtedly matters to someone, it is, fortunately for us, irrelevant to the story. What does matter is that each day for Jerry is very much like the last, and today is no exception. Soon, of course, adventure will be thrust upon him, and carry him to the end of the universe. But not just yet. Today is background, environment, mood. We have learned that Jerry was formerly a scientist, and is now rotting away on a distant planet for an error in judgment 12 years ago. That is as about as much as we can expect to learn on our first day.
The story has three or four characters we might care about more than the rest, if in fact we care about any at all. We’ve met Jerry, and will spend a great deal more time with him as we move along. We have, of course, met Baker, but he is just one of many supporting characters, his presence mostly serving to give Jerry someone to talk to as the author sneaks in exposition. Although he will ultimately have an impact on the climax to the story, his character traits will prove to be irrelevant, and will therefore be left behind with the rest of the supporting cast. Later on, we’ll meet Ball, Jerry’s ex-wife, whom we might also refer to as our heroine. I don’t know if it is because so many science fiction authors are divorced, or just that they hate women, but our heroes always seem to be divorced, and Jerry is no exception. She is the third of our lead characters, and we will her meet by and by. Presently, however, our story takes us back to Earth, where we will meet the second character of any importance, the Old Man.
The Old Man shouted into his vid-com: “Miss Dixon, get the Domo in here.”
He looked to be about fifty, with a full head of hair turned respectably gray. He sat at a large desk with his back to one of three 20 foot high windows, which in spite of the potential for so much light, were prevented from sharing their bounty with the office by electric shades that held the sunlight at bay. On the wall opposite the desk, the only wall without a window, was a mammoth vid-screen which at had a sort of stock ticker running across the bottom section, but which was otherwise dark. A vague glow from an imperceptible source kept the room in a perpetual state of gloom.
A short distance from the desk, and near an adjacent wall, stood a moderately sized round table with no chairs. On the remaining wall was a secretary. The office was otherwise devoid of furniture.
On the Old Man’s desk were a variety of papers and notes, his vid-com, and a desktop humidor containing the necessary articles for his favorite pastime. Behind the desk was seated the Old Man himself, his hand on the button of the vid-com. As usual, his finger had not yet left the button before the gentleman in question had been notified, lifted, and whisked down the hallway at unimaginable speed. Such efficiency notwithstanding, the Old Man’s patience was challenged.
“Miss Dixon, what hell is taking him so long?” he bellowed, but his secretary knew better than to answer. She knew the requested party would arrive before she could make her answer, and she wasn’t programmed to give a reply in a situation that would, by its very existence make her reply moot.
True to form, the requested party presented himself several meters from the Old Man’s desk, with the expected greeting, “Good morning, Sir.” He was good looking, with a well cut suit, and both arrogance and deference in all the right places. He could easily have been mistaken for a young professional man of 30 or so, but professional man he was not. Like the Old Man’s secretary in the next room, he was not a man at all, but one of a growing population of mechanical men, commonly referred to as robots. He could walk and talk like a man when the situation called for it, which it seldom did, and perform much better when necessary, which it usually was. On his trip to the Old Man’s office, for example, he had been virtually flying down the corridors, in some cases locked into electric tracks that carried him at speeds nearly impossible for an organic man to imagine, let alone achieve.
This robot, whom the Old Man referred to as the Domo, was programmed for deference and duty. He served the Old Man faithfully, arranged his appointments, managed much of the programming for his staff, and kept the day to day operations of the business running smoothly. In spite of his importance, however, his personality was strictly in accordance to his programming, and rather than exuding confidence, he came off as an obsequious sycophant, if not downright spineless. Had he been human, he might have been referred to as sniveling. As a programmable machine however, such an epithet would be as misleading as it was misplaced. He was as close to the type of assistant the Old Man wanted as was possible to produce, which made him near perfect instead.
The Domo arrived, pen in hand, ready to serve.
So, at long last we learn that we’re in a robot book. It is not clear yet whether the robots are in charge, and in fact, from the scene before us we might well assume that they are not. We would, however, be wrong, and need look no further than the great history of space and robot stories to see why. In the world our story hails from, of course, robots are expected to follow one of two storylines:
1. Robots have taken over the world, or
2. Robots have not taken over the world, yet.
This story follows the first.
We’ll learn more about the relationship between the robots and men later in the story. For now, we will have a brief preview, so we can move forward with a basic understanding, rather than wander the proverbial desert of environmental clues waiting for the universe of the story to bother taking focus.
Robots are in charge and more or less benevolent. They have little use for men, but tolerate them, and when it serves their self interest, reward certain of them with wealth and power. The Old Man is such a one. For reasons as yet unknown, he is in control of a business staffed primarily by robots, with the occasional human for creative thought work.
He is, it turns out, a kind of half-man, half-machine, Darth Vader-ish thing, although without the cape, helmet, and creepy voice. Nevertheless, inside, many of his parts are mechanical, which have increased his lifespan significantly while decreasing his ability to connect on an emotional level. We expect that he answers to the robots at some level, but not to the robots he surrounds himself with.
His adventure, too, is about to be thrust upon him, although as the story’s chief villain, his is far less likely to avoid tragedy.