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Phillips, Peter – “At No Extra Cost” (1951)

02/14/2013

It is the year 1992, and the leading manufacturer of robots is being publicly harangued by a preacher who “doesn’t say that our Servotrons are lazy or inefficient or that they smell, or eat the baby, or draw rude pictures on the wall. He just says they have no soul!” Like “A Peculiar People,” this is about the anxiety felt over the distinction between human and machine – and, like “A Peculiar People,” it suggests that that anxiety is ill-founded. Servotrons are human-shaped because customers don’t trust “tin boxes” to take care of them, particularly as pilots in air cars. The narration even makes explicit the fact that it is this age of comfort and affluence that allows the Preacher, a real fire-and-brimstone type, to give people “something new. Or something so old that it was new again,” and reference is made to the religious revivals that took place in the 1960s. The narrative sympathy doesn’t last long, though, turning to remind the reader that ”It was the age of reason. The Preacher had given them a little unreason, nicely wrapped up, and they were falling for it.”

The reader then discovers that the Preacher is actually in the employ of the rival Automata Corporation, and the stage is set for an oratorical showdown between him and the newest, fanciest Servotron – who is, in fact, capable of learning from experience, which, the story suggests, is in fact what a soul boils down to. The Preacher wins the debate, only to reveal that he shares the secret revealed by the woman in “A Peculiar People” – this piece also argues that the line between the human-made world and God’s work is vanishingly slim.

Compare and contrast with some of Bradbury’s more hysterically anti-modern pieces.

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