Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Short SF Review #10: "Blessed Are the Meekbots"

"Blessed Are the Meekbots," by Daniel F. Galouye
Appeared in Imagination, December 1953

...For they shall inherit the earth, Paul thought as he conjured up a picture of a world of sloven human idiots sitting idly by as a creeping dementia washed over them. The mental picture also showed Meekbots, reacting under engrained compulsion, reporting back to the laboratories to await futilely reassignment to other masters.

This story won me over with its title alone. If you've never heard of this 5,000-word short, let alone read it, you're in common company. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, the December 1953 issue of Imagination - a magazine specializing in "stories of science and fantasy" which ran from 1951 to 1958 - is the sole and solitary place "Blessed Are the Meekbots" was ever published.

The story itself is set in an indeterminate future time and follows Paul Davis, a gubernatorial candidate who comes to feel that the use of Meekbots, biological robots1 which "are, for all practical purposes, human," is a particularly sinister form of slavery. The function of a Meekbot is simple, but significant: when a Meekbot is attuned to an owner, a telepathic link enables the transfer of all the owner's pain, concerns, and worries to the Meekbot, which suffers in its owner's stead. Someone attuned to a Meekbot can feel the consequence of pain, but no discomfort from it.

Paul believes that the Meekbots are, contrary to the manufacturer's claims, not simply serving as passive receptacles for the pain they absorb from their owners, but actually suffering the pain. His quest for a legal solution to Meekbot slavery takes him face-to-face with a world transformed by the absence of pain, and stands on the doorstep of a few interesting inquiries before veering into the sort of Twilight Zone twist ending that was, I believe, fairly common in 1950s sf. In fact, this is the sort of story that probably would have worked well as a Twilight Zone episode.

Having read it, I think "Blessed Are the Meekbots" is worth more than its very limited publication history suggests. It represents good science fiction in that, except for the very last scene, it raises important questions about how technology might affect human nature and how people adapt to it. The climax of the story, Paul's confrontation with his wife Audrey over her purchase of a Meekbot, I found very effective at communicating how much potential the technology had to corrupt society - people suddenly free of pain, concerns, and worries coming to believe that lacking those qualities made them superior to those who did not.

Admittedly, it's a relatively minor portion of the story, somewhat buried beneath the larger theme that basic selfishness would keep everyone who obtained a Meekbot from discarding the "paradise" they reaped by having another person to suffer from them. In that, "Blessed Are the Meekbots" is more of an anti-slavery tale with a technological twist.

One of the marks of good sf, in my opinion, is the ability for a piece to raise further questions in its readers. "Blessed Are the Meekbots" certainly did that for me. Pain is a universal condition of humanity, and though it's a negative in most respects, banishing it from the world might not necessarily create good.


Previous Short SF Reviews:
1 I prefer the term "bioroid," but your mileage may vary.

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