Society Kills the Killers

Kuttner & Moore’s Two Handed Engine is one of the biggest draws in Greenberg and Olander’s Criminal Justice Through Science Fiction, for sure. If this book were a shopping center, then this story would be Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s – that is to say, the big anchor store. Two Handed Engine is a post golden-age story with pulp leanings about a post apocalyptic society that had forgotten where it came from, and knew even less than we do about where it was going. Owing a debt of rough genesis to Milton,

But that two-handed engine at the door,
stands ready to smite once, and smite no more . . .

as well as Francis Thompson

Those strong feet that followed, followed after
with unhurrying chase, and unperpurbed pace,
deliberate speed, majestic instancy . . .

I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust of the mounded years -
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.

this story is one of the best known tales by the couple that wrote it, which says quite a bit about its popularity. Kuttner and Moore, a married couple that produced reams of stories under a host of pseudonyms, contributed greatly to the body of quality SF work before Kuttner’s rather early death, followed by Moore’s retirement.

All of that is not to say that Two-Handed Engine was perfect. Parts of it were close to perfection, but others were pretty rough and could have used some work. One of the most problematic aspects of the story was the world’s back story. In the past mankind had achieved a utopia through the use of robots. Robots did all the manual labor, and man did all the thinking. The robots were dedicated servants, and were probably constrained by some set of Asimovian laws. The only thing that they cared about was making sure that human beings lived well, and that all of our wishes were fulfilled as quickly as possible. About what happened to that society Kuttner & Moore said very little, though what they did say inevitably draws comparison with our own world:

Before the really big wars began, technology advanced to the point where machines bred upon machines like living things, and there might have been an Eden on Earth, with everybody’s wants fully supplied, except that the social sciences fell too far behind the physical sciences. When the decimating wars came on, machines and people fought side by side, steel against steel and man against man, but man was the more perishable. The wars ended when there were no longer two societies left to fight against each other. Societies splintered apart into smaller and smaller groups until a state very close to anarchy set in.

Although the pay-off in the end is immense, readers must understand that the set-up here is rough or they are unlikely to get through it. Kuttner & Moore have basically posited a world that just kind of fell apart, without really explaining why. Probably because of the time limitations of the short story format the authors just kind of plopped the reader into this world of strange values, giving only the barest sketch as to how it all happened. The story suffered for those omissions, but the authors deliver so well on their premise that by the time the story is over all the roughness of the early pages is pretty much forgotten, and to the author’s credit, dismissed.

After the wars the robots had again built up a utopia which provided for the needs of all men, but that society too was destined for the scrap heap. The robot survivors of the war probably realized that one of the reasons that the war came about was because men lived too closely to each other. They decided that if mankind was spread out they would be unlikely to kill one another. It was not just proximity that drove men to kill each other; it was the difficulties that arose when men were packed tightly together. So they spread the survivors out and eventually were left with solitary hermits. Ask me not how they handled reproduction; the authors did not go there. Over the generations though mankind developed a trait that the robots called “archaic individualism,” which meant basically that mankind had forgotten all the lessons of society that they had learned over the prior millennia. The result could have been catastrophic.

The central problem of the story was this: Humans are resource collecting beasts. We go out and collect assets and tools for actual or perceived needs, and even if we don’t use them immediately we are wise enough to know that we had better save them for a rainy day. But society places prohibitions on how we go about collecting these things. We are conditioned to resist the temptation to take tools and assets of others – the normative of our population knows not to kill or steal unless the preservation of oneself is at serious risk. The human population in this story had spent so much time apart from one another that they had “forgotten” that lesson, and when one human being encountered another a fight to the death ensued. People murdered other people every time an outsider was encountered, either for some sort of material benefit, or out of paranoia.

Kuttner & Moore said a mouthful here about human nature; primarily that we are not inherently social, but instead that we are psychologically conditioned with social responses. Without that set of conditions we behave as if we were animals, and are incapable of collaboration. I personally don’t buy that in the least, but it is a debate that has been raging for much longer than I have been around, and its really not new to SF. Just take a look as Clifford Simak’s City, and keep your eyes peeled for a review of B.F. Skinner’s own utopia novel, Walden Two, coming soon to this site.

Needless to say, this disturbed the robots, which, don’t forget, were dedicated to our health and welfare. Somewhere along the line the robots took control of things, and made the decision that mankind must be reintegrated and taught to function within a society, so they rebuilt a city, moved the people into it, and set up a very odd police force. In this new city there was just one rule: Thou shalt not kill. All other prohibitions were lifted. Mankind was free to do as it wished, save for that one thing. To enforce this one rule the robots built a new kind of robot, called the Furies. The Furies were close copies of humans, but there were indestructible, unstoppable, patient, swift, silent and vengeful. This city of the future was heavily monitored: People in the Fury Control Center viewed the entire city through tiny, movable cameras that were mounted everywhere. When one person killed another one of the Furies was notified and dispatched. That Fury’s job was to seek out the murderer, and follow him or her around like an unshakable shadow for a random period of time, sometimes months or even years, then as messily as possible kill that person in front of as many witnesses as possible. The ultimate deterrent to murder, if you will.

Two Handed Engine is the story of murder plot and a double cross. Hartz, a high ranking bureaucrat in the Fury Control Center hired Danner to murder O’Reilly, who was Hartz’s superior. Hartz wanted O’Reilly’s job but was afraid that if he did not have an air-tight alibi he would be the first suspect. Danner was a down on his luck welfare recipient who was paid a life-altering amount of cash to commit the murder. Danner was no idiot though; he knew that if he killed O’Reilley he would likely be assigned a Fury to follow him around, then kill him.

The Furies were designed and built by the robotic controllers of the past to be beyond human intervention. They were autonomous and could not be reprogrammed at all. But Hartz showed Danner something that shocked him. Hartz plugged into the video surveillance network and found a place in the city where a condemned murderer was being stalked by a Fury. To Danner’s shock the Fury abandoned its target when Hartz his a button in his desk drawer. Hartz had figured out how to control the uncontrollable! Danner agreed to kill O’Reilly and did so, but a day or so later a Fury found him in a restaurant and became his shadow. For years that Fury followed Danner around while Hartz promised that he was only a day or so away from figuring out how to “fix” the problem.

But Hartz had double-crossed Danner. Hartz had figured out a way to control the Furies, but was not going to waste that on Danner. Danner figured this out when he was in the library one day, trying to educate himself about the Furies. He found the film that Hartz had showed him that day of the Fury giving up on its condemned: It was a scene from a movie from years past, not a transmission from one of the Control Center’s cameras. Danner, mad with rage, went to Hartz’s office intent on killing him. He ran ahead of his Fury, which otherwise would have killed him to stop him, but was killed by Danner who heard him coming. The Fury saw Hartz kill Danner, but Hartz reprogrammed it, and blamed Hartz’s death on suicide. Everyone accepted that because the Fury was in the room when the death occurred, and had it seen Hartz do it, it would have started stalking him. So Hartz got off, but he paid a psychological price for what he did. After he diverted the Fury he realized that he had corrupted the incorruptible: That he had destroyed the only thing that his society had to keep order. And because of that he came to know sin, and thus by the destroying the Furies, he achieved the robot goal of mankind’s understanding of sin.

At its heart Two Handed Engine is a reversal of the fall from grace of the book of Genesis. In this world those who do not know sin are the helpless ones. Sin is a concept that binds men together and prevents them from violating the basic laws of society. Those who felt the burden of sin may have felt helpless because their morals had returned, because the actions that brought them to know it left some marks on their psyche. Still, it can be surmised that they were the enlightened ones and would be able to live with others without the need for omnipotent, omniscient engines of death hanging over their shoulders. And thus, the world was transformed. Again.

This story is an excellent, noirish masterpiece with unexpected twists of plot and unflinching prose. It is a mature treatment of a few absurd concepts that have vast social relevance. The characters and settings were a bit hard to visualize and the authors’ syntax choices were sometimes unexpected, but fresh.

Legally there is not too much to talk about here save for the homicide issue, and perhaps penal theory. The Furies were the equivalent of a force of nature. Until Hartz came along they were uncontrollable, and they gave no quarter.

The robot stood there impassive, a streak of Danner’s blood slanting across its metal chest like a robotic ribbon of honor.

The Fury and the Controller of the Furies stood staring at each other. And the Fury could not, of course, speak, but in Hartz’s mind it seemed to.

“Self-defense is no excuse,” the Fury seemed to be saying. “We never punish intent, but we always punish action. Any act of murder. Any act of murder.”

Society allowed no defenses and no mitigation. If you killed another person, you were to be stalked and driven mad, then killed in front of as many people as possible, in as horrible a way as the Furies could imagine. At some point fairness may have been considered, but the policy of the state was purely deterrence, and they had a perfectly acceptable reason for that. People would not tolerate society, and society had to survive. Without it mankind would be doomed to dismal lives of solitude and loneliness, because they would care nothing for the life of their fellow man. The robots determined that fear would be the best way to recondition men to live in society. Right or wrong about the morality of such a decision, they adapted an accepted theory of punishment to reach the stated social purpose. Given what was at stake – the failure of the human race – I don’t think that it can be said that they went too far, even though a punishment scheme that fails to take into consideration any mitigation is repugnant to us.


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