Leiber, Fritz – “A Bad Day for Sales” (1953)
Another vending machine story – what are the odds? This one is more straight-forwardly science fictional than “The Collectors,” concerning the debut of Robie the robot vending machine, “the logical conclusion of the development of vending machines. All the earlier ones had stood in one place, on a floor or hanging on a wall, and blankly delivered merchandise in return for coins, whereas Robie searched searched for customers.” Robie is a turtle-ish fellow with wheels, radar sensors, and the prerecorded voice of a popular TV star.
Robie is initially played for laughs, misunderstanding his targeted consumer as often as not, and amusing the crowd more than successfully peddling any wares. As with most Leiber stories (let’s just not speak of “The Big Holiday” again) this one actually feels like it takes place within a living future history, with news items about Pakistan-fueled tensions between the USA and USSR flitting in and out on the periphery of the vending scene, a “legless veteran of the Persian War” offended at how Robie looks too much like the “Little Joe Paratanks,” and so on.
In the midst of this celebration of modern capitalist technology, the Russian rockets start raining down – but the machinery of rampant consumerism is only slightly slowed by this development. Robie, who had been at the center of a crowd, “slowly scanned a full circle. There was nothing anywhere to interest his reference silhouettes. Yet whenever he tried to move, his under-scanners warned of low obstructions. It was very puzzling.” He asks the first man to stand if he wants a smoke, tries to give a lollipop to a fire hydrant because his vision was blurred by the EMP, and when people begin to cry out for water, he offers to sell them soda for a quarter. Capped off by the arrival of a rescue team, “more robotlike in their asbestos suits than he in his metal skin.”