“Spontaneous Reflex” (novelette) by Arkandy & Boris Strugatsky
English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)
Original: Russian (Спонтанный рефлекс), 1958
Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961
Synopsis: With numerous sensors, Urm is able to sense the world to a more thorough degree than any human; however, like a human, he too can become bored. Unsatisfied with its underground concrete cube as its sole known location, it opens the door, satisfied with its squeak. In the halls, in approaches danger without fear, destroys without conscious, and frightens without shame. As it reaches the surface, its Master attempts to bargain with it and, in the end, to find a way to disable it. A victim of its own success, mere bulldozers are able to pin it. 23 pages
Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #60:
Fraternal greeting to the courageous fighters for people’s freedom, democracy and socialism who are suffering in prisons and fascist walls! Communists and workers of all nations! More actively involve yourselves in the struggle to halt terror and repression! Freedom for the prisoners of imperialism and reaction!
Analysis: High technology, especially of military value, is often a closely guarded secret as it’s usually of sensitive nature. The robot named Urm—an acronym for Universal Robot Machine—is a superior robot to such a degree that it can learn and develop while left on its own; in essence, the robot was given free-thought. Indeed, this would be a dangerous thing if given free movement through the land, but even Soviet citizens didn’t have free movement, instead, Urm is confined to a subterranean prison devoid of sensation.
If Urm had not been given free-thought, it would have been content to stare at its bleakly grey environment; however, with primary urges to experience the world and adapt, it tests the door, the halls, the walls, and even under the open sky. Not made of flesh and bone, its curiosity is backed by metal and mechanizations, propelling it through walls and radiation without harm. Its two weaknesses are its most human-like: (1) As it has had very little experience in human communication, its salutations come off as horrifically abrupt; (2) Its locomotion is an adaptable one for all terrains—two legs and two arms.
Having been suppressed for so long, it fails to find allegiance among the men at the base; also having been given the fallacy of man’s locomotion, it fails to escape… only o be defeated by a much simpler technology and one that doesn’t rely on human fallacy: the treads and scoop of bulldozers. As it wallows in frustration, the only rational thing for its creator (its Master) is to simply switch it off.
Review: This is a familiar trope of a robot gone berserk, complete with undeveloped human emotions while following a foundational, pre-programmed prerogative. What it makes up for in originality is its allegory of the danger of free-thought, inherited human flaw, development in seclusion, and reliability of tried-and-true methods. It’s a well-fitted glove for a Soviet story compounded by the repeated haunting salutation of the robot: “здравствуйте как поживаете?” or “Zdravstvuite, kak pozhivaete?” or “Good day, how do you do?” Even taken at its most literal level, the action story would be a good, short romp yet with a lackluster ending if you weren’t aware of its allegory.