In his very first sentence in “Mechanoplis,” Miguel de Unamuno, lets us know his story was inspired by reading Erewhon by Samuel Butler. That 1872 novel is considered one of the first books to imagine artificial intelligence. Butler extended Charles Darwin’s recent ideas on natural selection to apply to the machines of the industrial revolution. Could machines develop consciousness and become self-replicating? This makes it hard not to consider Erewhon a major science fiction novel of the 19th century. However, I’m still on the fence about whether or not genre science fiction can claim utopian literature. My current thought is those old utopian novels inspired the birth of genre science fiction by getting people to think about the future. But along the way there was a fork in the road. Some science fiction has continued to worry about the future, like the recent novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. But most genre SF has made the future into a Disneyland of thrills, adventures, and fun. The future becomes a place we want to visit.
It’s hard to trace the evolution of ideas in utopian novels and proto-SF stories of the 19th century to mid-20th century genre science fiction. Butler used the future to comment on Victorian society with satire closer to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century work than how Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov used the future in the 20th century science fiction. But I do see stepping stones, from story to story.
Reading “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer provided an immediate sense of déjà vu. I can’t remember if I read this 1913 story from the Spanish writer Unamuno in another anthology, or because it feels so much like other science fiction stories I’ve read, especially, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1934.
“Mechanopolis” begins with an unnamed narrator lost in a desert, nearly dead, who happens upon an oasis where he finds an automated railway system that takes him into a deserted city where machines maintain an automated society long after humanity has left. The forgotten cafeterias allow our narrator to eat. That was true in the Campbell story too. However, in this story the narrator goes mad as he realizes the machines have souls, and even write about his activities in their daily newspaper, spooking the hell out of him. The abandoned cities in “Twilight” still functioning by self-repairing machines, but they inspire a great sense of wonder, not fear.
In the end of “Mechanopolis,” the narrator escapes the city and returns to the desert. He encounters Bedouins who save him. When the narrator returns home he works to stay as far away from machinery as possible. Of course, this reminds me of the ending to the 1984 classic SF story “Press Enter ▮” by John Varley. I’ve written about it before. Victor Apfel, in the Varley story becomes so afraid of machines he rips the wiring out of his house.
“Mechanopolis” is a rather brief expression of a theme that shows up time and again in science fiction. We are definitely on the road to science fiction with this story. Unamuno completely ignores how his narrator finds his way to the mechanical city. In “Twilight,” Campbell has his story told to a man of our times by a wayward time traveler he picks up hitchhiking.
This reveals an interesting aspect to the evolution of science fiction. Writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a difficult time setting their story in the future. Often, those early tales about the future have people from the present stumble into some kind of suspended animation. In 1819 Washington Irving has his title character in “Rip van Wrinkle” fall asleep for twenty years. In 1888 Edward Bellamy has his character, Julian West, go under a hypnotic sleep for 113 years to get to the future described in Looking Backward. Of course, the most famous solution was by H. G. Wells in 1895, when he sent his character into the future via a time machine. But then in 1928 Buck Rogers returns to the old method getting to 2419 by being trapped in a cave in where radioactive gas puts him into suspended animation.
All these writers evidently felt there must be some connection between the present day and the future. Maybe they thought we needed a POV like ourselves to react to the future. However, Ray Bradbury did away with the human viewer altogether in “There Will Come Soft Rains” where he describes an automated house working after the humans are gone, and we assume extinct because of WWIII. It’s a beautiful story. However, the machines aren’t sentient, and we don’t fear them. We’re just wistful to see them working without us.
Unamuno has his character take a strange train ride. Does his narrator ever realize he’s in the future? Or is it possible that this mechanical city is somewhere on Earth like the land of Oz, in current time but having a quite divergent development from the rest of the world? Or is Mechanopolis in another dimension? I’m not sure we know. The train is a portal, but not much else is explained. I’m assuming Mechanopolis is in the future. Art the narrator sees in the machine’s museums he feels are the originals might imply the narrator was in the future. But he also wondered if our museums held perfect forgeries. That could imply Mechanoplis was not in the future.
One of the surprising aspects to the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops,” is E. M. Forster just puts his readers into the future. That approach eventually becomes the standard for science fiction. We read science fiction so we can jump into the future. Any comparison to the present is at an unconscious level.
“Mechanopolis” anticipates automated cities in future stories like The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. In those two the humans aren’t quite gone but our species is fading away. I just remembered, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson from 1912. He took his readers to the far future too, where the remaining humans survive in the remnants of a technological civilization. Hodgson got his readers there with a reincarnated character from our times. Some editions of that book lop off that introductory section, and jump immediately to the future. Evidently, those editors felts modern readers didn’t need the connection with the present day.
Another story where the humans are gone but the machines remain is the connecting filler to the fix-up novel City by Clifford Simak. We are told humans have left and only intelligent machines and uplifted dogs remain. The gimmick of the fix-up is the robots and dogs are telling tales about humans, which are just reprints of Simak short stories. With Simak, we love the machines.
“Moxon’s Master” the 1899 story by Ambrose Bierce features a chess playing machine killing a human. We have a long history of anthropomorphizing animals and objects, so when did the idea of sentient machines first develop in science fiction? Unamuno’s 1913 story is way before computers, or even the concept of robots were developed. That was even more true of Erewhon. Why does Butler or Unamuno imagine machines will become aware? It’s one thing to assume automated machinery will keep running, or could even be made self-servicing. It’s a whole other concept to imagine that machines could observe people, and in this story, feel concern for the narrator’s state of mind. Evolving machines was quite a leap for Butler, but Darwin inspired all kinds of fears about evolution. A great case could be made that Darwin is really the father of science fiction.
In this very short story, Unamuno comes up with automated cities, the extinction of humans, cities that keep functioning without humans, self-aware machines, and even machine inheriting the Earth. He also comes up with the fear or paranoia of intelligent machines. It’s doubtful many English writers and readers knew about Unamuno’s story. Could there have been any chance of Campbell reading it? I wonder what Spanish writers Unamuno influenced with science fictional ideas?
James Wallace Harris, 8/30/21