“Rebellion of the Machines” (unfinished) by Valery Bryusov
English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)
Original: Russian (Восстание машин), 1908
Translated by Anindita Bannerjee, 2015
Synopsis: In the thirtieth century, everyday life is immersed in electricity, technology, mechanisms, and gadgets. Across the world, all this technological sophistication is run by a generator in each of earth’s eighty-four machine zones. Descending from zone to district to county, the power trickles down to meet demand. The mysterious nature of technology and its constant service to mankind takes a more sinister role—it begins to attack. Accidents soon appear to be murder by machine.
Pre-analysis: The title of the story—which Google translated to “Rise of the Machines”, actually—evokes the image of the Terminator stalking after Sarah Connor. The horror of the first Terminator movies (let’s leave it at that because the sequels were simply bent on action scenes, tropes of time travel, and destruction) lies in the single-minded stalking of the Terminator, the pinpoint obsession of the Terminator to accomplish this one task: kill Sarah Connor. From Sarah’s perspective, she’s just a normal woman, yet, for some reason, she becomes the prey of a futuristic monster. The future is manifested in the monstrosity of the Terminator, and Sarah, as a result, fears what the future holds.
Whereas Terminator personalizes fear in the form of a single-minded machine stalking after a seemingly harmless woman, “Rebellion of the Machines” disassociates the fear to embody the everyday, tactile world: the telephone, elevator, tram, or light switch.
Analysis: Ignorance is bliss, until that same ignorance bites us on our ass, or in the case of “Rebellion of the Machines”, it electrocutes us to death via the earpiece on our phone. Complacency with the modern-day wonders around us is tantamount to the same proverb; we don’t fear them, of course, but at the same time, we don’t understand them. Our reliability on these devices sets us on the precipice of fatally ignorant when they begin to falter, go on the fritz, act up, or when the so-called gremlins wreck the works. We’re left helpless by our ignorance.
Nowadays, this helplessness can be witnessed by our panic when our laptops crash, when our phones don’t reboot from a fall, or even when a fuse (hey, some people are helpless in all situations). Revert your technology back 110 years… I’m sure they dealt with similar problems: your phonograph’s quality deteriorates quickly, your Brownie camera takes poor photos, your radio receiver is too staticky when receiving Morse code, your windshield wipers smear something terrible, your Model T has some funky steering, etc.
Regardless of the era, occupants of the time will experience their own form of helplessness against the “ghost in the machine”, be it digital computer, electric typewriter, pneumatic pump, or even pulley systems, levers, flints, fire, or rocks. Whenever we use technology—see any of the above—our widespread use of the device is far ahead of our widespread understanding of the same device. Imagine how many cavemen damned their deities when literally playing with fire—Ugg damn it!
Review: The story is sort of a precursor to a novel, much like a historical outline prior to writing the actual novel. Given that the time was 1908, this may well in fact have been the very piece that was going to be extended into its entirety, be it a novelette, novella, or even novel. At the end of the story printed in Red Star Tales, the story ends with “”I froze in [Editor’s note: the text ends here]” (85). Though only eight pages long, the entire length of the story is compelling in one way or another. It needs some editorial refinement, for sure, but it comes off well. If the story had ended with “I froze in” without the editorial note, the reader could have assumed that the author had met their fate via an electric typewriter, ballpoint pen, or fountain pen—intriguing, to say the least.