It’s a setup disturbing enough to be from the mind of Harlan Ellison: infants are stolen from mothers and their brains are used to operate sophisticated war machines for the conquest of Earth. Bouncing between free indirect style and first person point-of-view, Miller tries to show the inner consciousness of a being who thinks it is an artificial intelligence but is really human. It is a life of anxiety, desire and frustration, as the being known as Clicker is tortured by his “TwoLegs” handler at the merest sign of insubordination. The story is at the same time horrific and touching, as the maybe-reunion at the end is consummated in an act of irreversible destruction.
This is a longer story that feels in some ways like a rough draft for A Canticle for Leibowitz, in theme if not in plot. There has been a war that was fought mostly by means of an artificial intelligence built to run a city and all its mechanized systems. The local city was made uninhabitable not only by the radioactive dusting attack but by “Central,” the city’s learning system that still keeps police, traffic and energy bills running in perpetuity long after the war is over. Jaywalkers or anyone breaking long-forgotten laws are arrested by self-propelled robotic policemen and tossed in jails with crumbling infrastructures, and handed foodless trays every day until they starve to death. Even rusting bomber planes are sent out every day on missions to drop bombs they no longer possess. The rural population that survived is intent on destroying the machines once and for all, ridding themselves of all technology, but a strange man named Mitch who is inexplicably heading into the city has other plans. While this story isn’t as deep as Canticle, it’s fascinating to see what amounts to an early draft of Miller’s ideas for the novel.
Next time: “Blood Bank”