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Simak, Clifford – “How-2” (1954)


It was a sadly-inaccurate prediction by many in mid-century America that as technology and automation progressed, humans would have more and more leisure time to enjoy. In the world of “How-2,” that future has come to pass – kind of. Instead of enjoying their time off work, these people complain about the tyranny of a 15-hour work week, regret that there’s never enough time to do all there was to do, and take up such enjoyable DIY hobbies as dentistry, house-building, landscaping, art, self-tonsillectomies, rocketry, robot-building, and so on.* Everyman Gordon Knight receives what he thinks is a DIY dog-cyborg kit from How-2, Inc., and then realizes they accidentally sent instead a prototype robot-building robot named Albert who proceeds to reproduce ad nauseam.

* (While clearly the surfeit of leisure and the shortened work week never really came to pass, there is something to be said for the growth of unpaid-work sold as leisure – in regard to, say, book reviews written for free and posted on a blog).

Knight’s neighbor Anson Lee is the requisite black sheep of the story – he truly enjoys his leisure with a pipe and a drink, and as an independently wealthy lawyer, he has a lot of leisure. As the delivery mechanism for the authorial point-of-view, he is also apt to say things like “they do it not because they need all the things they make, but because the making of them fills an emptiness born of shorter working hours, of giving people leisure they don’t know how to use.”

A tax assessor gets wind of Gordon’s windfall of robots, but Albert balks at the idea of selling any of his children to offset the bill. These shenanigans culminate in another robots-in-a-court-of-law showdown when How-2 sues to get Albert back – who knew this was such a trope in the 1950s? Lee, as a human, acts as the actual counsel, but with a bevy of Albert-produced robo-lawyers giving him advice behind the scenes:

“If it please Your Honor, I should like to point out that we live in a mechanized age. Almost all industries and businesses rely in large part upon computers-machines that can do a job quicker and better, more precisely and more efficiently than can a human being. That is why, Your Honor, we have a fifteen-hour work week when, only a hundred years ago, it was a thirty-hour work week, and, a hundred years before that, a forty-hour week. Our entire society is based upon the ability of machines to lift from men the labors which in the past they were called upon to perform.” – why not therefore allow them to practice law and improve that industry as well?

Lee, on Knight’s behalf, wants to prove that How-2 defrauded the world by hiding Albert away, and that robots should have rights and could not be property – this was not an act of theft, but of liberation. While the court deliberates, the nation’s robots flee to the hills and go on strike and the world grinds to a half – kind of a proto-robo-Galt action, if you will. In the end, the judge finds for the defendants, robots are newly-recognized citizens, and Albert and his grateful offspring promise Knight that he won’t have to worry about a thing for the rest of his life.

He’s horrified at the prospect.

Most obviously a satire of the Popular Mechanics kind of pseudo-do-it-yourself trend, but can also be read as a statement on race, labor, or taxes, according to other reviews on the internet from people who, I imagine, are fans of the Galt-ian aspect cited above.

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