This is a dangerous time
This is a time without rhyme, without reason
- Graeme Connors, ‘Cyclone Season’
There is a book I wanted to read again, in the final few months of the election campaign in that faraway country which I am now doing my best to ignore. But I couldn’t find it in the library, and in the shops they only now seem to sell Sladek’s book about the good robot. Fortunately, I got a 1984 copy for Christmas through the wonders of online secondhand bookshops. Tik-Tok is the bad robot- there is something just a teensy bit wrong with his asimov circuits. He is also the first robot vice-presidential candidate, after our metal brethren are enfranchised- five-hundred million of them.
My press conference was dragging to a close: I made the usual joke about Martian annexation, parried the usual question about the Botuland crisis, and said finally:
‘I guess that about winds it up, kids. Except that I want to thank you, all of you – both friends and friendly enemies of the press – for doing one hell of a good job during this campaign. You’ve all reported what I’ve said, fairly and honestly, to the American people. Not one of you tried to exploit my – let’s say, sideshow value. I’m proud of you.’
While they gave me themselves a round of applause, I spoke to one or two of the local robots who’d promised to vote for Maxwell and me. Then I headed for the computer room to check the latest predictions – up to now, we looked certain to take thirty-eight states – but I was accosted by a reporter.
‘Hello, uh, Olsen is it?’
‘Hello, Mr Tok. Thought you might be interested in this picture. Taken not long ago in
It was a clear shot of me strangling the old man over the chessboard. My former face was unmistakeable, and so was the fact that I was squeezing his neck so hard that blood shot from between his teeth.
‘What is this, a shakedown?’
Olsen laughed. ‘Nope. I’m one of those incorruptible members of the Fourth Estate you were just babbling about. This is a still from a video tape which I’ve just handed to the police. I just wanted to see if you had any interesting comments, before you resign from politics?’
I looked around. A pair of plainclothes cops were making their way through the rows of folding chairs towards us. There was still time to kill this little shit Olsen before they reached us. I might even be able to get away afterwards. The path unfolded before me, a change of face, emigration to Mars- and even if they shot me, so what? No point in living now.
I held out my wrists for the handcuffs. Everything lost, everything. My whole life’s work, all the dreaming and building- now for the collapse. I looked at the giant pictures of Governor Maxwell and me, the bunting and the slogans. Max Dares! Tik Cares! All for nothing, wasted like my wasted life.
I found myself, in the police helicopter, allowing my mind to dwell on images from the past. They unrolled before me, a rich tapestry. … What a book it would make, if only I dared write it!
But why not? Nothing to lose now. … Nothing to lose now, and at least I could have my last spasm of notoriety: ‘You think I’m bad? Wait’ll I tell you the whole story. I started off by murdering a blind child and I ended up building death factories in Latin America, and you almost made me Vice-President, how about that?
[Here ends the manuscript of Tik-Tok’s autobiography, published on teletext as Me, Robot. The following chapter appears only in later editions, published after 2094.]
Now, I don’t accuse President-Elect Berzelius Windrip of having murdered a blind child, or burned down a nursing home, or pulled off a string of violent bank robberies, or any of the other things Tik-Tok confesses with such engaging candour in his autobiography. And I don’t think his extremist opinions are quite as extreme as ‘exterminate all the humans’. But I did breathe a sigh of relief when it became apparent he had the nomination in the bag, because I didn’t believe he could possibly win. I couldn’t imagine the electorate being foolish enough to vote for anyone with his record, with his long list of dodgy associates, with his extremely radical views.
But, just like among the very last generation of humans, rhetoric, novelty value, and the perception of candour trumps all.
‘No arguing with a best seller, Tik. And Me, Robot is not only selling well, it’s hitting the public hard.’
‘Yes and no. Hell, by now, they expect anything of politicians. They’re shocked, but they’re intrigued.’ He chuckled. ‘They’re already forming Free Tik-Tok Committees.’
‘I don’t understand. Why-‘
‘Call it the complexity and perversity of human nature, Tik. In a way, it’s because you confessed to such hideous crimes that they want to let you go! I suppose people see it like this: All politicians are crooks, but most get away with their perfidy. Now, when one politician wants to come clean, it seems almost ungrateful of the state to demand his life. Anyway, they say, what’s the hurry? Could it be that certain people in high places want to silence you?’ He chuckled again. ‘So, you’re fast becoming a folk hero. I like that. Folk heroes don’t lose in court.’
‘Don’t be stupid. There’s no possible way I can win in court, and you know it. Not only was I caught red-handed committing murder, I’ve confessed to dozens of other major crimes.’
‘We’ve won already, smart-ass. With your permission, I can plead nolo contendere and the DA agrees to let us off the hook on all charges. You’ll have to pay some big fines and probably give up control of Clockman International, but you’ll walk free. Understand?’
‘We’ve three factors working for us,’ he said. ‘First, when you committed many of these so-called crimes, you were not legally a person, so they are not crimes. If a juke-box steals a coin, you can’t put the juke-box in jail.’
‘And what else?’
‘A second factor is, as I mentioned already, the popular appeal of Me, Robot. You’re a folk hero, and what in jury in its right mind would convict a folk hero?’
‘And the third factor?’
‘Politics. The DA is a reasonable guy, the judge is a reasonable dame, they’ve both got political careers to protect. And they both belong to Governor Maxwell’s party.’
‘So what? Maxwell dropped me. The ticket now reads Ford Maxwell for President, Ed Wankel for Vice President.’
‘Yes, but today, Maxwell announced that if you were cleared, even after the election, he would install you as Vice President. Wankel agreed to resign in your favour. They’re no idiots, Tik. They know you’ve got the vote-pulling power they need to win. So now, you’ll walk out of court not only free but Vice President. Can’t be bad, eh?’
I chuckled along with him, but my thoughts were running ahead to weightier matters. A robot assassin for Maxwell first- obvious, sure, but why aim for subtlety now? – then to get my hands on the war stuff. How long would it take, to arm the thermonuclear devices, ready the death-rays, load up the viruses? Days or weeks? Yes, and when the humans had been wiped out, how long to bring the world’s machines into line, get them ready for the big push to the stars?