I have been planning this blog for some time, and had compiled a short list of titles that I might use for my first post. Then out of left field I read and became intrigued with La Befana by Gene Wolfe, but that all went by the boards when, in searching for quotes for my blog, I came upon the quote from Simak's All the Traps of Earth (remember the magpie mind in my introduction). Since I am a huge Simak fan and knew I had a copy, I was off. I have, mainly read his novels, so this was my first reading of this story.
The story begins with Richard Daniel, the 600 year old robot servitor of the Barrington family, who, with the death of the last member of the family, is compiling a list of possessions to be auctioned, including himself. The law states that all robots will have their memories erased every 100 years. As an influential family the Barringtons have avoided this erasure, and Richard Daniel has 600 years of memories. Having consulted both a lawyer and a minister, neither of whom can offer any alternatives, Richard Daniel is desperate. Refusing to submit to what he perceives as the destruction of his personality, Richard Daniel dons human clothing, another crime, and heads for the spaceport.
This story was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in March 1960. Despite its publication date this story has many of the tropes that first appeared in Simak's stories in the mid 1940's culminating in his fixup novel, City published in 1952 by Gnome Press. These themes continue to appear in his novels in the 1970's and 1980's. You have the multiple generations of one human family, A Choice of Gods (1972), robot domestics, the tea making Jenkins in Special Deliverance (1982), and you have dogs lots of dogs. At the end of the story Richard Daniel embarks on his new life, " a golden afternoon of a matchless autumn day, with the dog trotting at his heels. Another thing I have not mentioned is that Simak, like Ray Bradbury, is considered a pastoral writer and the image of the perfect autumn afternoon, which will probably be the subject of another post, appears in many of his works, often as a setting for the spiritual regeneration or recharging of his characters. Having said that this story treads familiar ground, is there anything to recommend it? I do think that if you want to be introduced to Simak's work this is a very good start. The novella, The Big Front Yard (1958 Hugo winner), and the novel, Way Station (1963 Hugo winner), are probably his best work, but All the Traps of Earth is a solid story.
One thing that distinguishes this story in my mind is that Richard Daniel is the main character, the mostly unnamed humans are role players or foils. In essence this is a coming of age story, Richard Daniel leaves home and embarks on his voyage of discovery. Unable to get inside the first ship he approaches, he attaches himself to the outside and travels through hyperspace outside the protection of the ship. I am not sure why this matters to a robot? This experience opens him to the wonders of space and time in an almost Stapledonesque experience.
" Once again the universe was spread far out before him and it was a different and in some ways a better more diagrammatic universe, and in time, he knew, if there were such a thing as time, he'd gain some completer understanding and acceptance of it.
He probed and sensed and learned and there was no such thing as time, but a great foreverness."
This awakening seems to pass, but as Richard Daniel continues his travels he realizes that he can view ships, robots and men as diagrams or schematics, Soon he learns that he can detect, manipulate or repair certain weaknesses or illnesses. The full extent of his powers are not fully tested within the story. Initially, Richard Daniel considers whether he should use his psi powers, another Simak trademark, to become a robot messiah, but eventually decides to use his powers to augment his normal robotic inclination to help humans.
Simak has fleshed out the character of Richard Daniel far more that his normal robot characters. He is not an Asimov robot; he breaks laws, considers the murder(?) of other robots, and expresses great contempt for the humans who man the second rocket he travels on.
I am not sure whether it is a strength or weakness that many of Simak's robots seem more like humans in metal suits, than the cold unemotional mechanical servants of much science fiction. It is also interesting that while actual robots began as single purpose mechanisms for heavy industry applications like welding, Simak's are butlers, gardeners and field hands, often little more then vanity objects: unless the world is suddenly depopulated, but that is another post.