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Authors: John Wyndham

The Compassion Circuit

BOOK: The Compassion Circuit
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Compassion Circuit

by
John Wyndham

There have been many stories in the past, both fictional and science-fictional, dealing with
man’s fear of the machines he has created, but here is one in which his fear seems more than
justified… Did you ever stop to think how horrible it would be if there were a machine that
wouldn’t
permit
you to hurt yourself, or to do anything which might hurt you? Give it a moment’s
contemplation, and then read this tingler by one of England’s best-known modern science
fantasists.

An A\NN/A Preservation Edition.

Notes

BY the time Janet had been five days in the hospital she had become converted to the idea of a domestic robot. It had taken her two days to discover that Nurse James
was
a robot, one day to get over the surprise, and two more to realize what a comfort an attendant robot could be.

The conversion was a relief. Practically every house she visited had a domestic robot. It was the family’s second or third most valuable possession, the women tending to rate it slightly higher than the car, the men, slightly lower. Janet had been perfectly well aware for some time that her friends regarded her as a nitwit or worse for wearing herself out with looking after a house which a robot would be able to keep spick and span with a few hours’ work a day.

She had also known that it irritated George to come home each evening to a wife who had tired herself out by unnecessary work. But the prejudice had been firmly set. It was not the diehard attitude of people who refused to be served by robot waiters, or driven by robot drivers or who disliked to see dresses modeled by robot mannequins.

It was simply an uneasiness about them, about being left alone with one—and a disinclination to feel such an uneasiness in her own home.

She herself attributed the feeling largely to the conservatism of her own home which had used no house-robots. Other people, who had been brought up in homes run by robots, even the primitive types available a generation before, never seemed to have such a feeling at all. It irritated her to know that her husband thought she was
afraid
of them in a childish way. That, she had explained to George a number of times, was not so, and was not the point, either. What she
did
dislike was the idea of one intruding upon her personal, domestic life, which was what a house-robot was bound to do.

The robot who was called Nurse James was, then, the first with which she had ever been in close personal contact and she, or it, came as a revelation.

Janet told the doctor of her enlightenment, and he looked relieved. She also told George when he looked in in the afternoon, and he was delighted. The two of them conferred before he left the hospital.

“Excellent,” said the doctor. “To tell you the truth I was afraid we were up against a real neurosis there—and very inconveniently, too. Your wife can never have been strong, and in the last few years she’s worn herself out running the house.”

“I know,” George agreed. “I tried hard to persuade her during the first two years we were married, but it only led to trouble, so I had to drop it. This is really a culmination. She was rather shaken when she found out the reason she’d have to come here was partly because there was no robot at home to look after her.”

“Well, there’s one thing certain. She can’t go on as she has been doing. If she tries to she’ll be back here inside a couple of months,” the doctor told him.

“She won’t now. She’s really changed her mind,” George assured him. “Part of the trouble was that she’s never come across a really modern one except in a superficial way. The newest that any of our friends has is ten years old at least, and most of them are older than that. She’d never contemplated the idea of anything as advanced as Nurse James. The question now is what pattern?”

The doctor thought a moment. “Frankly, Mr. Shand, your wife is going to need a lot of rest and looking after, I’m afraid. What I’d really recommend for her is the type they have here. It’s something pretty new, this Nurse James model. A specially developed high-sensibility job with a quite novel contra-balanced compassion-protection circuit. A very tricky bit of work, that.

“Any direct order which a normal robot would obey at once is evaluated by the circuit, weighed against the benefit or harm to the patient, and unless it is beneficial, or at least harmless, it is not obeyed.

They’ve proved to be wonderful for nursing and looking after children. But there is a big demand for them, and I’m afraid they’re pretty expensive.”

“How much?” asked George.

The doctor’s round-figure price made him frown for a moment. Then he said: “It’ll make a dent. But, after all, it’s mostly Janet’s economies and simple-living that’s built up the savings. Where do I get one?”

“You don’t. Not just like that,” the doctor told him. “I shall have to throw a bit of weight about for a priority, but in the circumstances I shall get it, all right. Now, you go and fix up the details of appearance and so on with your wife. Let me know how she wants it, and I’ll get busy.”

“A proper one,” said Janet. “One that’ll look right in a house, I mean. I couldn’t do with one of those levers-and-plastic-box things that stare at you with lenses. As it’s got to look after the house, let’s have it looking like a housemaid.”

“Or a houseman, if you like?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s going to have to look after me, too, so I think I’d rather it was a housemaid. It can have a black silk dress, and a frilly white apron and cap. And I’d like it blonde—a sort of darkish blonde—and about five feet ten, and nice to look at, but not
too
beautiful. I don’t want to be jealous of it…”

The doctor kept Janet ten days more in the hospital while the matter was settled. There had been luck in coming in for a cancelled order, but inevitably some delay while it was adapted to Janet’s specification.

Also it had required the addition of standard domestic pseudo-memory patterns to suit it for housework.

It was delivered the day after she got back. Two severely functional robots carried the case up the front path, and inquired whether they should unpack it. Janet thought not, and told them to leave it in the outhouse.

When George got back he wanted to open it at once, but Janet shook her head.

“Supper first,” she decided. “A robot doesn’t mind waiting.”

Nevertheless it was a brief meal. When it was over George carried the dishes out to the kitchen and stacked them in the sink.

“No more washing-up,” he said, with satisfaction.

He went out to borrow the next-door robot to help him carry the case in. Then he found his end of it more than he could lift, and had to borrow the robot from the house opposite, too. Presently the pair of them carried it in and laid it on the kitchen floor as if it were a featherweight, and went away again.

George got out the screwdriver and drew the six large screws that held the lid down. Inside there was a mass of shavings. He shoved them out, on to the floor.

Janet protested.

“What’s the matter?
We
shan’t have to clean up,” he said, happily.

There was an inner case of woodpulp, with a snowy layer of wadding under its lid. George rolled it up and pushed it out of the way, and there, ready dressed in black frock and white apron, lay the robot.

They regarded it for some seconds without speaking.

It was remarkably lifelike. For some reason it made Janet feel a little queer to realize that it was
her
robot—a trifle nervous, and, obscurely, a trifle guilty…

“Sleeping beauty,” remarked George, reaching for the instruction-book on its chest.

In point of fact the robot was not a beauty. Janet’s preference had been observed. It was pleasant and nice-looking without being striking, but the details were good. The deep gold hair was quite enviable—although one knew that it was probably threads of plastic with waves that would never come out. The skin—another kind of plastic covering the carefully built-up contours—was distinguishable from real skin only by its perfection.

Janet knelt down beside the box, and ventured with a forefinger to touch the flawless complexion. It was quite, quite cold.

She sat back on her heels, looking at it. Just a big doll, she told herself—a contraption. A very wonderful contraption of metal, plastics, and electronic circuits, but still a contraption, and made to look as it did only because people would find it harsh or grotesque if it should look any other way.

And yet, to have it looking as it did was a bit disturbing, too. For one thing, you couldn’t go on thinking of it as “it” any more. Whether you liked it or not, your mind thought of it as “her.” As “her” it would have to have a name; and, with a name, it would become still more of a person.

“ ‘A battery-driven model,’ ” George read out, “ ‘will normally require to be fitted with a new battery every four days. Other models, however, are designed to conduct their own regeneration from the mains as and when necessary.’ Let’s have her out.”

He put his hands under the robot’s shoulders, and tried to lift it.

“Phew!” he said. “Must be about three times my weight.” He had another try. “Hell,” he said, and referred to the book again.

His brow furrowed.

“The control switches are situated at the back, slightly above the waistline. All right, maybe we can roll her over.”

With an effort he succeeded in getting the figure on to its side and began to undo the buttons at the back of her dress. Janet suddenly felt that to be an indelicacy.

“I’ll do it,” she said. Her husband glanced at her. “All right. It’s yours,” he told her.

“She can’t be just ‘it.’ I’m going to call her Hester.”

“All right, again,” he agreed.

Janet undid the buttons and fumbled about inside the dress. “I can’t find a knob, or anything,” she said.

“Apparently there’s a small panel that opens,” he told her.

“Oh, no!” she said, in a slightly shocked tone.

He regarded her again. “Darling, she’s just a robot—a mechanism.”

“I know,” said Janet, shortly. She felt about again, discovered the panel, and opened it.

“You give the upper knob a half-turn to the right and then close the panel to complete the circuit,”

instructed George from the book.

Janet did so, and then sat swiftly back on her heels again, watching.

The robot stirred and turned. It sat up, then it got to its feet. It stood before them, looking the very pattern of a stage parlormaid.

“Good day, madam,” it said. “Good day, sir. I shall be happy to serve you…”

“Thank you, Hester,” Janet said, as she leaned back against the cushion placed behind her. Not that it was necessary to thank a robot, but she had a theory that if you did not practice politeness with robots you soon forgot it with other people.

And, anyway, Hester was no ordinary robot. She was not even dressed as a parlormaid any more. In four months she had become a friend, a tireless, attentive friend. From the first Janet had found it difficult to believe that she was only a mechanism, and as the days passed she had become more and more of a person.

The fact that she consumed electricity instead of food came to seem little more than a foible. The time she couldn’t stop walking in a circle, and the other time when something went wrong with her vision so that she did everything a foot to the right of where she ought to have been doing it. These things, certainly, were just indispositions such as anyone might have, and the robot-mechanic who came to adjust her paid his call much like any other doctor. Hester was not only a person; she was preferable company to many.

“I suppose,” said Janet, settling back in the chair, “that you must think me a poor, weak thing?”

A thing one must not expect from Hester was euphemism.

“Yes,” she said, directly. But then she added: “I think all humans are poor, weak things. It is the way they are made. One must be sorry for them.”

Janet had long ago given up thinking things like: “That’ll be the compassion-circuit speaking,” or trying to imagine the computing, selecting, associating, and shunting that must be going on to produce such a remark. She took it as she might from—well, say, a foreigner.

She said: “Compared with robots we must seem so, I suppose. You are so strong and untiring, Hester. If you knew how I envy you that!”

Hester said, matter of factly: “We were designed. You were just accidental. It is your misfortune, not your fault.”

“You’d rather be you than me?” asked Janet.

“Certainly,” Hester told her. “We are stronger. We don’t have to have frequent sleep to recuperate.

We don’t have to carry an unreliable chemical factory inside us. We don’t have to grow old and deteriorate. Human beings are so clumsy and fragile and so often unwell because something is not working properly.

“If anything goes wrong with us, or is broken, it doesn’t hurt and is easily replaced. And you have all kinds of words like pain, and suffering, and unhappiness, and weariness, that we have to be taught to understand, and they don’t seem to us to be useful things to have. I feel very sorry that you must have these things and be so uncertain and so fragile. It disturbs my compassion-circuit.”

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