“Siema” (novelette) by Anatoly Dnieprov
English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)
Original: Russian (Суэма), 1958
Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961
Synopsis: A man interrupts the slumber of another train passenger, who sits down and seems to have a lot on his mind. When the disrupted passenger inquires about his worries, the man recalls a lengthy tale in which he actually created a machine that could learn, read, speak, and think like a human—almost. Through a series of logical deductions, the machine began to outpace its creator who then began to have trouble deducing the machine’s logic. When the passenger offers their thoughts, the insight into human nature draws an immediate parallel.
Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:
Pioneers and school children! Fervently love the Soviet Motherland, persistently acquire knowledge and labor skills! Prepare yourselves to become active fighters for the task of Lenin, for Communism!
Analysis: Drive by the analogy that the nervous systems is just a series of electrical pulses—a code of ones and zeroes—a semi-deranged scientist delves into the intricacies of his project: create a robot that thinks like a human. The result is a machine (Siema: self-improving electronic machine) that can write its own program; the stationary construct can calculate numbers, use human language, and learn from experience—it was write its own programs. After it had learned to read, it began to voraciously consume literature and learn from the material. When engaged in conversation with its creator, the machine—a her incidentally—began to argue.
With similar mental processes, the two were alike: man and machine; however, the man considered Siema to be of lesser class as it was made of metal, as it was created from the creator, thereby being made to serve its creator. The crux of the man’s argument: “A machine cannot add anything to the knowledge man has given it. It can only use that knowledge” (107).
After it begins to read and think, it soon begins to feel, sense, explore, and study in situ. When the man awakes to his creation studying him, he becomes unnerved by the reversal of observation. It makes the remark that direct experience is necessary for its progress, that study of the human brain can excel its more perfect state. Of course, the man is threatened by the knife-wielding mechanism… but it’s a state of mind that the man pushed upon the machine, so he’s about to become a victim of his own success.
Though the theme is tiresome—a man-made machine goes berserk on its creators—this story has a surprising parallelism that made it past the censors. Arkandy and Boris Strugatsky’s “Spontaneous Reflex” (1958/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) dealt with a similar issue, but its revolt was more naïve, more curious than the borderline vindictiveness of “Siema”.
Aside from various other revolutions, revolts, rebellions, and uprising, consider the number of peasant revolts in Russia in the last 500 years:
- the Bolotnikov Rebellion (1606-1607)
- the Spepan Razin Rebellion (1667-1671)
- the Bulavin Rebellion (1707-1708)
- the Koliyivshchyna (1768-1769)
- Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775)
- the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794)
- the Mahtra War (1858)
- Urkun (1916)
- the Arsk Uprising (1918)
- the Tambov Uprising (1920-1921)
With a long history of grassroots revolt, the government of the Soviet Union of 1922 must have always been weary of uprising. Institutional toleration for dissent was at a nil level as they demanded those in revolt to die by gas poisoning. Needless to say, the government thereafter continued this hardline of attack on opposition, which in the government eyes was simply a continuation of organizational philosophy imparted by the peasants who started the communism ball rolling.
As a fully functional communist government (the created) by the peasants (the creators), surely there was friction of similar ilk to this story: “How is it that the machine [the State] turned against its creator [the peasants]?” (117). Were these same words in the man’s mind when he saw the revolt of his robot? Well after the fact and dwelling upon the whole incidence, the man reflects: “Nervous activity in man is regulated by two contradictory processes—excitation and inhibition. People who have no inhibition often commit crimes. This is precisely what happened to my Siema!” (117-118).
Review: While the parallelism is interesting in terms of Soviet history, the telling of the story is less than amusing or enlightening. Nearly the entire story is told in reported speech of t the ramblings of a mad scientist: “he said that he had said, ‘blah blah blah’”. The result is littered with uninteresting tenses in a narrative format and splattered with quotations marks for pages on end. The rambling is reminiscent of Alexander Kazantsev’s “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) where the author pours forth his theories in the guise of speculative fiction. It’s not at all readable, but it does spur the mind into fits of parallelisms.