Young People Read Old SFF

With Folded Hands

Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson’s remarkable writing career spanned nine decades, from the 1920s to the mid-2000s. Many of the great figures of science fiction (the ones who inspired the authors who inspired modern authors) were themselves inspired by Williamson. In 1976, Williamson was honoured as a SFWA Grandmaster, the second author to receive that accolade. Rumour has it part of the motive was fear that if SFWA delayed, Williamson might die of old age. He did in fact die—in 2006, thirty years later.

Although Williamson was seemingly inspired by post-war anxiety, he came to realize that the story my young friends are reviewing had a very personal origin:

It was only when I looked back at the story much later on that I was able to realize that the emotional reach of the story undoubtedly derived from my own early childhood, when people were attempting to protect me from all those hazardous things a kid is going to encounter in the isolated frontier setting I grew up in. As a result, I felt frustrated and over protected by people whom I couldn't hate because I loved them. A sort of psychological trap. Specifically, the first three years of my life were spent on a ranch at the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains on the headwaters of the Yaqui River in Sonora, Mexico. There were no neighbors close, and my mother was afraid of all sorts of things: that I might be kidnapped or get lost, that I would be bitten by a scorpion and die (something she'd heard of happening to Mexican kids), or that I might be caught by a mountain lion or a bear. The house we were living in was primitive, with no door, only curtains, and when she'd see bulls fighting outside, she couldn't see why invaders wouldn't just charge into the house. She was terrified by this environment. My father built a crib that became a psychological prison for me, particularly because my mother apparently kept me in it too long, when I needed to get out and crawl on the floor. I understand my mother's good intentions—the floor was mud and there were scorpions crawling around, so she was afraid of what might happen to me—but this experience produced in me a deep seated distrust of benevolent protection. In retrospect, I'm certain I projected my fears and suspicions of this kind of conditioning, and these projections became the governing emotional principle of "With Folded Hands" and The Humanoids

Perhaps this personal element is what made the story memorable enough for inclusion in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame was intended to “bestow (...) recognition on stories that were published prior to 1966, and thus never had a chance to earn a Nebula." It seemed to me obvious that Williamson had to be part of this review series, and that of his short works, this was the one I had to pick.

Will its merits be at all appealing to my readers or will those be overshadowed by the ways in which it has aged?

I, Robot, the 2004 movie starring Will Smith was claimed to be based on Isaac Asimov's Robot stories. After reading this story, I think it was actually based on With Folded Hands, and that Asimov was marketable for movie execs. There are many parallels, from the free replacement of old non-humanity-enslaving models of robots to the silicone skin and the central brain controlling everything. It even has the single creator of the robots who was done in by his own directives.

I found it odd that interplanetary travel was commonplace, but other tech seems to have stayed at 1950s levels. Big magnetic relays and no integrated circuits in sight.

I've read stories with the same point before, that perfect safety makes life very dull. Come to think of it, I believe they were Asimov Robot stories. I am really struck by the similarity. And by the similarity of the story of the discovery of a new force that makes fission and fusion easier which reminded me of The Gods Themselves, which was the book club book one year I was in WatSFic. Was there borrowing going on with this, or were these all just popular topics at the time?

It has a Bad End that only science fiction and horror stories have, and that the movie I, Robot was not allowed to have. Now I'm curious why so many science fiction stories have Bad Ends when most other fiction avoids them.




—Jamie

I'm pretty sure James saw the "no talk of representation" opening paragraph of my last review, and in response and presented me with this story. I am trying not to take the bait and talk about how annoyingly sexist the story is. Instead I will make the following observations:

  • I couldn't tell if the way women were described in the first few pages of the story was satire or sincere.
  • The story got better as it went along (i.e. I found the part where themrobots slowly take over much more comforting than the description of the main character's home/family life pre-robot invasion)
  • The first part of this story brought me the same amount of joy as I would have received from binge watching The Jetsons (a cartoon that depicted a future where cars could fly but married women couldn't work outside the home).

Speaking of other reasons why we might have been asked to review this story, I suppose there's also the idea that the author was concerned about robots becoming So Good At Things that people wouldn't be able to do stuff anymore. Especially with computers, self driving cars, smartphones, and The Internet, this is still a theme that scares some (possibly old) people to this day.

Personally, the thought of some offloading some of the things I do to a robot sounds like a Good Thing, rather than a Bad Thing to me. But I guess it makes sense that people with regressive, traditionalist attitudes towards familial roles (i.e. the author of this story) would be afraid of the robots taking over.

Or maybe the whole story was satirical, and I just didn't pick up on it.

It's hard to say, really.


—Lisa

Has it aged well?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that it has aged better than other stories that have attempted to set a story in a near/alternate future. It eases in with vague general terms on new technologies from an unsophisticated protagonist.

No, because of sexism and a general mid-20th century vibe. The wife is valued according to her physical attractiveness, and hard work has spoiled her by making her ‘too aggressive’. The ideal is a docile, physically appealing, girlish, sexual, non-working woman. He thinks wistfully of when she was like his young pre-pubescent daughter—that wouldn’t make it past an editor now, or they might get complaints. The advertising pamphlet for the mechanicals is aimed at women—apparently, the happiest dreams of women involve 1) Not cooking, 2) Not working, 3) and No heavy labour.

This story describes ingrained sexism very well, though I suspect it’s unintentional. It’s always in the background but never the focus. It is inherent in how the protagonist thinks and perceives almost everyone, and it is inherent in the family’s character traits assigned by the author.

There’s a general post-WWII vibe with a perfect nuclear family—one mother, one father, one daughter, one son. They have a house, a car, a working father and a stay-at-home mother. I’m almost surprised there was no dog to complete the perfect picture.

It reminds me of…

Other media involving a sinister group with a hive mind.

Humans seem to be very worried and unsettled by the idea of hive minds or collectives. A few examples come to mind: zombies from The Walking Dead, the Borg from Star Trek, the alien race from Ender’s Game, the invading race from the Acorna series. Of course, hives as we know them don’t really work like that. Bees, ants and man-o’-wars are just colonies of animals that have specialized in ways that violate Western beliefs around individuality.

Other Thoughts

Having just learned a bit about the history and present state of women in advertising, the part with the pamphlet jumped out at me. The pamphlet and the protagonist’s thoughts about his own wife were reflective of how things were and are in advertising in our world.

Conclusion

Meh. Not terrible. But not good.

—Mel

Maybe it’s the difference of almost 70 years of additional robots-will-take-over-and-destroy-humanity stories, but I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of robots showing up and everyone just randomly letting them take over their houses, businesses, and jobs within a day. Even the least genre-savvy person these days knows that robots coming to take over the planet isn’t a good thing.

Mr. Underhill is an interesting choice of narrator. He has enough knowledge of the current level of technology that he can give the reader perspective into the drastic technological leap forward the humanoids represent, as well as give us a perspective on how quickly society is falling apart. While I found the games he plays with himself and his sense of superiority annoying, but it also provides useful worldbuilding to explain what is considered possible in this world, and why the humanoids go outside of those parameters, without having to resort to a complete infodump (it’s still an infodump, but at least I’m busy disliking the point of view character while it’s happening).

Surprisingly, if I ignore the garbage science and assume that the humanoids integrated themselves slowly into society instead of overnight, the themes hold up pretty well. Concerns about automation taking away jobs and if we’ve made things “too safe” feel like they fit in a modern context.

I also liked that the story did include the idea of what is essentially cloud computing and the internet of things. The humanoids are using a server-client setup, and they’re replacing stand alone things with equivalents that can only be run by the humanoids. While the science is invented, the tech might just apply more today than it did when this was written, since these days some people already have lights, thermostats, and door locks (among other things) that are controlled by the internet. Our future humanoid overlords are basically Google.

The casual sexism in this piece was very aggravating, although not that unexpected. Mr. Underhill seems to love his wife solely because she is pretty and diets, while criticizing her for being “aggressive” and seeming to believe that all her choices are foolish. It’s disappointing that there’s no real characterization for her or the children beyond the bare minimum that the plot requires to continue Mr. Underhill’s story. For a story that spends so much time focusing on what he has to lose, I would like to see it be more interested in his family, instead of just his already failing business.

My biggest issue with this is that it’s just too slow. It’s hard to get invested in the plot when things take so long to get going, because I’m bored long before getting to the interesting parts. I’d like less build up and more actual story.


—Mikayla