“Erem” (short story) by Gleb Anfilov
English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 4 (Sphere, 1971), Best SF: 1970 (Putnam, 1971)
Original: Russian (ЭРЭМ), 1962
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963
Synopsis: When molten silicon begins to leak then spew from a fault in the wall of the crystallizer, an engineer and a cybernetics expert agree that the best recourse is to dispatch Erem, the intelligent emergency robot. Having been schooled in handling emergencies, an experience of which it fondly remembers, Erem understands the dangers yet has time to reflect about his existence amid the rising temperatures. Though the heat is dastardly as it wishes respite, Erem remains diligent while the engineer only asks for results
Analysis: Erem was built to serve. Rather than being a common servitor robot, Erem’s nature naturally put it in peril with every job. Emergencies were its specialty, so emergencies it what it did. When it served, it saved the factory and thus saved human lives. But in its specialized service, it ultimately found death through sacrifice.
Its fiery death of sacrifice can be seen in two regards: (1) death through duty or (2) death through caste.
- In the case of duty, as Erem was part of the team, part of the factory, its duty was bound to that collective: what’s good for the group is good for the individual; therefore, its individual death is a benefit to the collective factory. It was just one machine, after all.
- In the case of caste, Erem was born and bred for one purpose: to tackle emergencies that are too dangerous for human intervention. Here, Erem is more disposable than a human so it’s given a lower job, thus a lower caste. In his over-specialized caste, he meets death when death was a certainty in its life. The engineer and expert have no feeling toward the lowly caste and have no second thoughts to sacrifice it for the factory.
Regardless, Erem was proud of its sacrifice for the factory while its superiors felt inconvenienced by the disposed machine. Though the machine could think and feel, they simply sacrificed the lowly caste machine for the greater good, for human good.
Review: Given the short length of the story—only six pages—it does a pretty fair job of generating some sympathy for the little robot. If its length were doubled, I think the author could have better captured the scenario a little better. The rushed feel encapsulates the emergency and the human panic in contrast to the calm and collected thoughts of Erem, which is actually in the face of danger. Overall, it’s a compact little story with a couple layers of analogy.