I’ve always hoped that editors of retrospective science fiction anthologies missed a few gems when mining old science fiction magazines because I want new editors to still have stories to discover. I believe “At No Extra Cost” by Peter Phillips is one to consider. It’s not a classic, but if I was editing a collection of AI and robot science fiction stories I’d include it. “At No Extra Cost” came out in the August 1951 issue of Marvel Science Fiction and was recognized as one of the best stories of 1951 by Bleiler and Dikty in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952. Except for one minor German reprint in 1974, Bleiler and Dikty were the last editors to appreciate this story.
I feel “At No Extra Cost” is as good as Heinlein’s shorts in the 1940s. Phillips combined a good futuristic conflict without doing a lot of info-dumping. But like I said, it comes from a lesser SF magazine, and it’s not been regularly reprinted over the years, so maybe it’s something that only tickles my interest. Recent news reports suggest that stories published during this time are not likely under copyright, so I’ll reprint it below. It will be a test of my new OCR program. See if you find it fun too.
We don’t know much about Peter Phillips. He never published much. I wonder if editors overlooked him because he never stood out in the digests. He has five stories in our database but never got enough citations to make the final list.
When reading an old SF story we should try to consider the scientific knowledge of the period. In 1951 computers were just being discussed in the public, and it would be years before the term artificial intelligence would be created. Most science fiction writers at the time just presented robots that acted human, so we have to give Phillips credit for trying to imagine how a computer could evolve into a conscious entity. And we should give him extra credit for creating an interesting religious angle for society to reject robots. Although, I have to ding Phillips ten points for not taking the plot to its logical conclusion – won’t intelligent robots be slaves if we own them and make them work?
James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19
3 thoughts on ““At No Extra Cost” by Peter Phillips”
Yes, a gem indeed. The philosophical answer to the question what makes a human human might not be very special or new – or even true for that matter – but the pacing is outright fantastic.
Thanks for sharing it here, I enjoyed it a lot.
I thought the AI questions and answers he was speculating about were pretty good for 1951. The public knew so damn little about computers then, and most science fiction didn’t explore the idea very deeply. I think this robot story is much more interesting than Asimov’s, well, at least until he got to the novels, and that was years later.
But definitely, the pacing of the story is spot on. I’m read two other stories by Phillips, “Manna” and “Dreams Are Sacred” – both in The Best SF Stories series by Asimov and Greenberg.
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