What I’m reading lately: The Compleat Boucher
The other day, prompted by someone’s question on SciFi StackExchange, I tracked down Anthony Boucher’s short story “Q.U.R.” It first appeared in the March 1943 Astounding Science Fiction, but today you can find it in The Compleat Boucher (2013).
The title of “Q.U.R.” is a reference to R.U.R., Karel Čapek’s play about “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” (Čapek was previously seen on this blog in relation to The War With the Newts.) In this particular futuristic universe, “universal robots” are all there are; the word “robot” is de facto synonymous with “android.” But these android robots’ universality is wasted on their repetitive jobs. Outside-the-box thinker Quinby gets a job repairing these robots — the robot elevator operator with an atrophied and trembling left hand, the robot space-traffic controller with paralysis of the legs, the robot cook insecure about his insufficiently jointed arms, the robot cryptanalyst who developed glossolalia just to exercise his vocal unit.
When Quinby had finished, the robot consisted only of his essential cryptanalytic brain, eyes, one arm, and the writer. This last was now a part of the robot’s hookup; so that instead of using his hands to transcribe the message, he thought it directly into the writer. He had everything he needed, and nothing more. His last words before we severed the speech connection were, “The runcible rhythm of ravenous raisins rollers through the rookery rambling and raving.” His first words when the direct connection with the writer was established were, “This feels good. Thanks, boss.”
Quinby’s robots are not “uniform” but “usuform” — formed following function — and thus not android at all. The story being set in an Asimov-esque universe where “robot” is practically a synonym for “android,” the reactions to Quinby’s productions range from skepticism to visceral disgust.
I’d seen Thuringer’s face red before, but never purple. He had trouble speaking, but he finally spluttered out, “Somebody did a lousy job of sterilization on your new assistant’s parents.”
Which brings me to what I guess I liked most about Boucher’s story (and its sequel, “Robinc”): the masterful worldbuilding, delivered with just the right blend of humor and good-naturedness. Little things like how the space-traffic controller’s desk has for communication purposes both a mike and an ike. (It wasn’t until re-reading that I noticed several subtler references to having one’s image picked up on an ike.) And big things like the B-plot that gets the narrator introduced to Quinby in the first place:
“What I don’t see is why Venusians. We we act that way about them, I mean. After all, they’re more or less like us. They’re featherless bipeds, more or less on our general model. And we treat them like they weren’t even beings. While Martians are a different shape of life altogether, but we don’t have ghettos for them, or Martian-baiting.”
So far I’ve liked every story I’ve read in The Compleat Boucher. Although I found the character motivations in “The Quest for Saint Aquin” a bit hard to grasp, I enjoyed its equally great worldbuilding; it made me a bit homesick for the Bay Area. “Nellthu” and “Khartoum: A Prose Limerick” are witty, elegant, utterly un-PC vignettes. And “Rappaccini’s Other Daughter” — only two pages long — has the most thrilling first sentence of the year:
For of course that sinister Paduan precursor of Mad Scientists, whose story has been so ably if incompletely related by Mr. Hawthorne, was, though mad, enough of a scientist to keep a control.