Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #13: “The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt
“The Last Poet and the Robots” by Abraham Merritt has a rather interesting publication history. It was part of a round-robin novel first published in the April 1934 issue of Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine. The website The Cosmos Project gives the history of the story and reprints the novel written chapter-by-chapter by 18 famous SF writers from the early 1930s. Besides Merritt, John W. Campbell, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton contributed, as well as many authors whose names aren’t familiar today. “The Last Poet and the Robots” was chapter 11, and many consider it the best chapter. It was the only chapter to be reprinted as a story in a professional magazine (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1934). In 1949 it was published in book form in the collection The Fox Woman.
What’s notable about “The Last Poet and the Robots” is it’s a very early story about robots, especially mechanical robots with conscious minds. We get the word “robot” from the 1921 Czech play, R.U.R., that was first translated into English in 1923. It’s amazing how fast this word was embraced around the world. Mechanical men and other android like beings had existed before. In the play, the robots are slave workers that have a biological basis, closer to the replicants in Blade Runner. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea of mechanical robots came into being but they weren’t sentient at first. And the term “artificial intelligence” emerged from computer science in the 1950s. So Merritt might get some credit here with this 1934 story. It would be interesting to trace the history of sentient machines in science fiction.
The story also presents a number of common science fiction themes from that era such as the mad scientist, evolved humans, immortality, robot overlords, a subterranean world, and super-science technology. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story particularly interesting or memorable. It was somewhat forward thinking that the super-beings are multiracial, but aren’t they really monsters? Narodny, the Russian mad scientist and poet, and ruler of the renegade super-humans, feels no qualms at killing normal humans when needed, even when trying to save humanity from the robots. That was a common aspect to superior beings in SF back then, they had god-like attitude regarding life and death. Merritt describes him like van Vogt’s evolved beings in his novel Slan.
Narodny did not hate mechanization. He was indifferent to it. Being truly intelligent he hated nothing, Also he was indifferent to the whole civilization man had developed and into which he had been born. He had no feeling of kinship to humanity. Outwardly, in body, he belonged to the species. Not so in mind. Like Loeb, a thousand years before, he considered mankind a race of crazy half-monkeys, intent upon suicide. Now and then, out of the sea of lunatic mediocrity, a wave uplifted that held for a moment a light from the sun of truth—but soon it sank back and the light was gone. Quenched in the sea of stupidity. He knew that he was one of those waves.
Later on Merritt continues his characterization of Narodny as a superman.
All were one with Narodny in indifference to the world; each with him in his viewpoint on life; and each and all lived in his or her own Eden among the hundred caverns except when it interested them to work with each other. Time meant nothing to them. Their researches and discoveries were solely for their own uses and enjoyments. If they had given them to the outer world they would have only been ammunition for warfare either between men upon Earth or men against some other planet. Why hasten humanity's suicide? Not that they would have felt regret at the eclipse of humanity. But why trouble to expedite it? Time meant nothing to them because they could live as long as they desired—barring accident. And while there was rock in the world, Narodny could convert it into energy to maintain his Paradise—or to create others.
This kind of evolved human is something science fiction presented time and again in roughly the same way. After van Vogt’s book came out, some science fiction fans called themselves slans. And L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) promised to be a kind a pseudo-science guide to creating such a being. John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went nuts over it. These superior being characters are especially repugnant when we remember the 1920s and 1930s was the time of eugenics, KKK, and National Socialists. Robert A. Heinlein used a similar superior being in his novella “Gulf” in 1949, which was a test flight for Stranger in a Strange Land.
I’m kind of surprised that the VanderMeers used this story, since their selection process attempts to show science fiction’s past in a better light than its current reputation for sexism and racism. Merritt does present Narodny as a poet/artist/creator though, so I’m sure he didn’t think of his character as being repugnant like I do. This description of Narodny’s creations and interests makes him epic and god-like, but his portrayal as a monomaniacal megalomaniac worries me.
But deep down in earth, within the caverns, were music and song and mirth and beauty. Gossamer nymphs circled under the little moons. Pan piped. There was revelry of antique harvesters under the small suns. Grapes grew and ripened, were pressed, and red and purple wine was drunk by Bacchantes who fell at last asleep in the arms of fauns and satyrs. Oreads danced under the pale moon-bows and sometimes Centaurs wheeled and trod archaic measures beneath them to the drums of their hoofs upon the mossy floor. The old Earth lived again. Narodny listened to drunken Alexander raving to Thais among the splendors of conquered Persepolis; and he heard the crackling of the flames that at the whim of the courtesan destroyed it. He watched the siege of Troy and counted with Homer the Achaean ships drawn up on the strand before Troy's walls; or saw with Herodotus the tribes that marched behind Xerxes—the Caspians in their cloaks of skin with their bows of cane; the Ethiopians in the skins of leopards with spears of antelope horns; the Libyans in their dress of leather with javelins made hard by fire; the Thracians with the heads of foxes upon their heads; the Moschians who wore helmets made of wood and the Cabalians who wore the skulls of men. For him the Eleusinian and the Osirian mysteries were re-enacted, and he watched the women of Thrace tear to fragments Orpheus, the first great musician. At his will, he could see the rise and fall of the Empire of the Aztecs, the Empire of the Incas; or beloved Caesar slain in Rome's Senate; or the archers at Agincourt; or the Americans in Belleau Wood. Whatever man had written—whether poets, historians, philosophers or scientists—his strangely shaped mechanisms could bring before him, changing the words into phantoms real as though living. He was the last and greatest of the poets—but also he was the last and greatest of the musicians. He could bring back the songs of ancient Egypt, or the chants of more ancient Ur. The songs that came from Moussorgsky's soul of Mother-earth, the harmonies of Beethoven's deaf ear, or the chants and rhapsodies from the heart of Chopin. He could do more than restore the music of the past. He was master of sound. To him, the music of the spheres was real. He could take the rays of the stars and planets and weave them into symphonies. Or convert the sun's rays into golden tones no earthly orchestras had ever expressed. And the silver music of the moon —the sweet music of the moon of spring, the full-throated music of the harvest moon, the brittle crystalling music of the winter moon with its arpeggios of meteors—he could weave into strains such as no human ears had ever heard. So Narodny, the last and greatest of poets, the last and greatest of musicians, the last and greatest of artists—and in his inhuman way, the greatest of scientists—lived with the ten of his choosing in his caverns. And, with them, he consigned the surface of earth and all who dwelt upon it to a negative Hell—Unless something happening there might imperil his Paradise!
I’m not really familiar with Merritt’s work. I’ve read quite a bit about his popularity, but not his famous novels, which are now mostly forgotten. From what the VanderMeers say in their introduction, he was a lot more successful than I knew. Merritt’s biography at Wikipedia is quite fascination. It says he was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Shaver. That combination right there makes me wonder though. He even influenced the creators of the game Dungeons and Dragons.
James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21