This is a story by Marcello Argilli that I have in a Russian edition of children’s stories. It’s part of his novella “Ten Cities” published in 1970, a collection of ten stories, each focusing on an imaginary city. They give a nod to different genres like noir or in this case sci-fi. One is presented as an entry from a diary, another like a movie script. This one made the biggest impact on me as a child. It may have been the first sci-fi story I read. I think it still holds up.
Marcello Argilli is practically unknown in the English world. There is not even a Wikipedia page for him. I think that this is due to him being a communist, just like his better known colleague and Gianni Rodari whose books are also untranslated into English.
Since I translated from the Russian any stylistic inelegancies should be blamed on me rather than the author.
City of Buttons
“Mommmy, why do we have hands?”
Mom tucked in her blanket and smiled.
“To press buttons, honey”
“And that’s it?”
“And to wash them in the sink.”
“And to take different things, right?”
“Silly, that’s what machines are for.”
“And what are feet for?”
“You are still so little! To press the pedals in cars, that’s what they are for. Have you ever seen a person who walked?”
“And the head? We can’t do without a head, right?”
“That’s right, precious. We need it as a backup in case the electronic brain that thinks for us breaks. Now go to sleep.”
Mother kissed Paolina and pressed a button. The tape player played a lullaby, the windows closed automatically, the air conditioner turned on, the alarm clock moved the alarm arrow to seven o’clock.
At seven – ring-ring-ring – and Paolina wakes up. In the city of machines, the city of total automation, a new day is beginning.
The little inhabitant of Machineville exchanges her bed for an electrically controlled chair, the chair moves into the bathroom and stops under the shower, mechanical arms soap up Paolina – vrooom…. – the drier sounds, blowing hot air.
The chair smoothly enters the dining room. Breakfast is ready. Bub-bub-bub… – the feeder pours coffee with milk into Paolina’s mouth.
The chair floats to the door, the door opens and Paolina movs to the seat in the lift. Vvvvv… – the cabin desceneds to the garage under the house and the girl is already in the car. Why strain yourself and drive the car when there’s autopilot. Peep-peep… – and Paolina is in front of the school escalator. Truk-truk-truk… – and she is in class.
On the right side of the table stands a calculator, on the left – an electronic minibrain. Paolina pushes a key and the problem written on the board is solved. Paolina pushes a button and an essay on the given topic is ready.
Meanwhile Paolina’s mother cleans the apartment. Sitting in front of the home’s control board she pushes all the buttons at once so that she could be done with cleaning sooner: brink-broonk-klutz-trick-track! And so the vacuum cleaners, electric floor polishers, bedmakers and window-washers are already working.
And what about Paolina’s father? He is working hard at the factory. His index finger is a blur over the buttons. Dunk-dink-bada-dunk!…One person for the whole factory, no easy task! But he has firmly decided, if in the nearest future he is not provided as promised with an automatic buttonpusher he will go on strike. Enough! A shift lasts a whole hour and in those endless sixty minutes his finger becomes numb as wood.
But let’s return to school, to the class where Paolina is studying. The teacher is giving out homework assignments – every student receives a tape with a recording of a book. At home the kids turn on their tape players and listen to the recordings – no one wants to hurt their eyes reading. Paolina wonders why they were never assigned “Robinson Crusoe”. Although if she remembers correctly, Paolina has heard from someone that in the whole city there’s not a single copy of that novel. And besides she has heard that the students of Machineville wouldn’t understand anything in Defoe’s book anyway.
Among the boys of Machineville Clorindo was unexceptional. Locking himself up in his laboratory he spent hours thinking what he could invent. But the city was chockfull with the most incredible machines. It seemed like anything possible has already been drafted and built, especially since even such a thing as a thought machine has existed for a long time. In its time even a dream machine had been invented. Knowing which dreams you preferred – happy, scary, historical, musical or fantastical – you would press a button. As soon as you fell asleep, mechanical hands, wrapped in something soft, would begin massaging your head and you would see the dream you ordered. It would happen that in the morning some would be unable to remember their dream. For that reason the machine recorded the dream and you could watch it on a screen in black and white or color (depending on what the dream had been like) and even in a version with sounds and smells. But even that’s not all. The genius of the machine was in its unerring ability to predict winning lottery numbers.
Nevertheless, he finally thought of something. To invent one more machine helpful to man? Not a chance. To invent a mechanical man, able to control all the complex mechanisms in the city, freeing up people from even such work as pushing buttons – that’s what came into his head. Not an ordinary robot (there were plenty of those) but a man-machine, no different from a human, able to think and act.
Wasting no time, Clorindo began working on the project. His father’s calculator and electronic brain helped the little inventor make the most complicated calculations and his mother’s chemical computer produced new kinds of synthetic materials. Luckily during the creation of the mechanical man it was possible to use many organs already tried in practice: heart and kidneys, teeth, eyelashes, moles and recently developed plastic bones usually used to fix breakages, polyethylene lungs and PVC stomachs.
Having assembled the skeleton, Clorindo began on nerves – a combination of little wires, transistors and batteries for registering feelings, then attached the kidneys, stomach and lungs. Little by little the invention was taking shape.
At night when mom and dad came in their son’s room to kiss him and wish him good night he could barely stop himself from telling them about his work. But he wanted to make it a surprise. He would tell them only after he received a patent for his invention. He fell asleep dreaming of this happy day. And so his work neared completion. Only the most difficult part remained – to cover the body in synthetic skin of his own invention and to fill the veins with synthetic plasma. This took up several days and finally the machine was ready. From the outside you couldn’t tell it apart from a human and, most importantly, it worked. The mechanical man opened its eyes, moved, obeyed….
Clorindo sat it in the car and drove to the Science Palace. There he took the elevator and stepped on the moving floor that delivered him to a large dimly lit hall.
And so he is standing shoulder to shoulder with his mechanical man before Knowitall, the Great Engineer, who is sitting in his chair with wide arm rests covered with buttons. Holder of the highest office in Machineville, Knowitall reviews and approves the work of inventors. The doors of his office are open to everyone, day and night the sad gaze of the wize old man is ready to concentrate on yet another invention, figure it out and appraise it.
“Great Engineer,” began Clorindo, hiccuping from excitement, “I invented…this…”
Not a single muscle moved in Knowitall’s face. The Great Engineer made just a barely noticeable movement with his finger and pushed a button on his armrest. A projector shined on the mechanical man.
“I didn’t leave out anything,” continued Clorindo, “He does everything I ask. His electronic brain reacts to any of my wishes. If we build a lot of machines like this humans wouldn’t have to do anything. The buttons in institutions and factories would be pressed by their mechanical doubles.”
The sad face of Knowitall remained impassive.
“You don’t believe me?” asked Clorindo. “Here, I will show you how it works. Go! (The mechanical man started walking.) See? He can do anything. Sit! (The mechanical man followed the order.) Say hello! Get on your knees! Scratch the back of your head!”
The projector followed the mechanical man and Knowitall carefully watched Clorindo’s invention like a director at rehearsal. But it was still impossible to read anything in his sad eyes. Clorindo was really anxious. A single word from this old man could decide the fate of his invention.
“I told you! It works. I can order him to do something else if you want.”
Knowitall shook his head.
“So, are you going to give me a patent?” Clorindo asked burning with impatience.
Knowitall remained silent.
“Well?” insisted Clorindo.
The Great Engineer lowered his eyelids.
“No,” he said after several seconds barely loud enough to hear, having jerked as if coming awake.
Clorindo’s eyes darkened. Everything in him protested against this verdict.
Tied to a metal bed Clorindo is looking straight ahead, at the electric wall clock. The second hand moves in spurts as if underwater – at least that’s how it seems to Clorindo. But it’s his eyes full of tears that are to blame.
How many seconds are left before the electric rays work? How much time is left? Thirty, twenty-nine… Like one sentenced to death he is following the hand relentlessly closing in on the point of oblivion.
He wanted to invent a useful machine so much…a mechanical man…to help people become even happier… Now he doesn’t care, everything seems disgustingly empty of meaning or purpose… Mother, father…kiss them goodnight – a gentle send off into the world of dreams… No reminiscences…he is sick…he doesn’t want to think about such things… He wishes only for the machine of dreams: to push the button of liberating endless sleep and never wake again.
“Because your invention is a failure,” answers Knowitall. “Take, for example, the movements. They have no smoothness, they are still the motions of a machine.”
“But this is a machine! And you can’t ask for…”
“I appreciate your kind intentions and your hard work, but you have so many more problems to overcome. Note the color of its face.”
The projector lit up the face of the mechanical man.
What is wrong with it? The skin looks just like the real thing, he took care of everything, even pores and a few freckles.
“Are you sure that this skin will get a tan?”
“A tan?…I don’t know,” mumbled Clorindo. “Honestly, I haven’t thought about it.”
“So you see! One cannot speak of a total resemblance between the mechanical man and a living being. Will it age? Will its hair go grey. Will it stoop with age?”
Clorindo had not considered that either.
“I will fix my mistakes, I will work some more, you will see, I will succeed.”
Knowitall shook his head.
“Maybe you will succeed at all that but I doubt you will be able to fix the main defect – make it so that just like a living human your mechanical man thought and acted without anyone’s orders.”
“That cannot be done!” exclaimed Clorindo. “Such an inventions is not possible!”
Knowitall putshed a button. The ray of the projector focused on Clorindo so that the unfortunate boy felt himself in the role of an accused criminal.
“Why do you doubt what I’ve said?” harshly asked the Great Engineer.
“It’s impossible to invent a machine that could act on its own!” Clorindo wasn’t giving up.
“Impossible? That word does not exist in Machineville.”
“Admit it, you are happy for any excuse to avoid recognzing my invention. I don’t believe you!”
Knowitall frowned even more.
“Believe me, Clorindo,” he said. “Science can get results that you have no inkling of.”
“Jealousy is speaking in you!” shouted Clorindo, almost crying. “I considered you the wisest in Machineville, but you are an evil, jealous man and that’s all. Yes, you are jealous of my invention!”
“I’m sorry, but I am forced to show you that you are wrong,” said Knowitall, reluctantly pressing one of the buttons.
A giant screen lit up on the wall and Clorindo saw an unfamiliar laboratory and about ten people in it whose gazes were fixed on a sleeping boy. Clorindo had a feeling that the boy looked familiar though the film seemed to be very old. Because of the bad sound he had to strain his hearing to tell what the people on the screen were saying and the people were so old that they spoke in weak, trembling voices.
“We have no alternative,” uttered one of them.
“We’ll try it,” agreed another and woke up the boy.
Awakened, the boy sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes. Everyone was looking at him with expectation. He lowered his feet off the bed, got up, greeted the people surrounding him and said that he is hungry.
A tray with breakfast was put in front of him. The boy ate and the adults looked as if a miracle was happening in front of their eyes. Meanwhile the boy’s breakfast consisted of the most ordinary croissants and coffee with milk.
“Here it is, our consolation!” exclaimed one of the old men.
“Yes,” joined another, “our last consolation.”
Knowitall pushed a button, the screen went dark and gloom returned to the hall.
“What does that mean?” asked Clorindo. “I didn’t understand anything. Although, I think I saw that boy somewhere, he reminds me of someone, I’m not sure of whom.”
Knowitall pushed a button – the projector lit up his face.
“It’s you!” recognized Clorindo “you in your childhood!”
“Yes,” confirmed Knowitall, “this film is more than a half century old.”
“But what does it have to do with my invention?”
“Haven’t you understood yet? I decided to show you how imperfect it is. But those old men on the screen, are really great inventors.”
What did Knowitall mean and why was there so much pain in his eyes?
“What did they invent?” asked Clorindo.
Knowitall leaned back in his seat as if he wanted to shrink and dissolve in the shadow.
“They invented me,” he said.
Standing in the middle of the hall, brightly lit by a projector, Clorindo looked at Knowitall, hunched in a ball. He heard every word clearly but refused to understand.
“So, you…” he murmured.
“Exactly. I’m a machine, a human invention, the best of all the models of mechanical man every created. And they,” Knowtall pointed at the blank screen, “they are all long dead. They were the last humans in Machineville.”
Clorindo got dizzy. Maybe he misheard?
“The last? Don’t you understand what you are saying?”
“Are you laughing at me?” Clorindo kept on. “I’m human, a living human, and my mom too, and dad…”
Knowitall kept silent but the answer could be read in his eyes, disonsolate like sorrow itself.
Clorindo’s went weak in the knees, the room spun, it seemed like the world suddenly shook in a mad dance.
“I, “ feebly said he, “I…”
“Yes, same as everyone. In Machineville there hasn’t been a single living soul in a long time. But to create an illusion of continuing life the last humans invented a mechanical man. I was the first. Now you know what I mean when I talk about a perfect machine resembling man.”
The mechanical man made by Clorindo stood immobile in a corner in a mannequin’s pose. It was ludicrous and now Clorindo saw it perfectly. Even a brief look was enough to see that it was a machine.
Knowitall continued, meanwhile.
“A machine that thinks, acts and feels without being forced by anyone. It grows a beard, it gets old and dies when the time it is given runs out. But we remain machines – me, you, everyone. Machineville – city of science, where everyone is happy…” He smiled bitterly. “Nevertheless we are no more than machines, like the ones we use. No one knows this, except me. If the others found out they would die of grief. Like me, the only one who carries this burden…Like you now. But no one will find out anything. This is a secret and you will not be able to share it with others.”
He pushed a button and all the doors in the hall closed.
“What do you have in mind? Do you want to kill me?”
Lying on a bed in the room adjoining the hall of the Great Engineer, Clorindo is waiting for a pulse of electro-magnetic rays that will forever strike out what he has heard.
But for now he still knows: humans have died out long ago, only the machines are left. And he is also a machine – the same as a washing machine, or a refrigerator, or a television, only more advanced.
The arrow on the dial runs along. He has twenty seconds left, nineteen…
Mother and father turned out to be only machines too. The warmth of their warm lips, kissing him every evening – a gentle send off to the world of dreams – artificial warmth. Dad’s eyes, so clear and intelligent – nothing but light sensors.
“What’s wrong with me? Am I crying?” he asks himself.
Knowitall, obviously he never cries: tears will not change anything. He carries a secret, that explains his eternal sorrow.
“Stupid, you are not a human, why are you crying? You are ridiculous, machines don’t cry.”
Ten seconds, nine…There are still eight seconds of agony.
“I am just a mchine! It is stupid and ridiculous to suffer so. Why do I suffer? These are the thoughts of a machine, this is my genius electronic brain thinking. How absurd – to suffer, like a human, and not to be human!”
The arrow continues on its way. Five seconds, four…A pulse of electromagnetic rays – and it will all be over. Death? In a way – yes, he will return home not remembering what his conversation with the Great Engineer was about. Knowitall explained to him. He, Clorindo, will live as before only having forgotten about everything that he found out.
On the way home he will meet acquaitances.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Rossi”
They will talk. “Oh, you were at Knowitall’s! Did you notice how sad he is? Why is that?”
They will never know why, just like they will never know they are machines…Two seconds.
“Mom, Dad, I have a surprise for you! I was at Knowitall’s! I showed him my invention – this mechanical man. He praised me. I just have a few things to fix that he pointed out.”
“Great job, Clorindo, great job,” his parents will say. “Work hard, maybe he will issue you a patent”.
But right now Clorindo still knows that he will not succeed.
A second will pass and he will forget everything. He will forget that he is a machine and he will be happy again, like everyone in Machineville.
Yes, truly Machineville is the best city in the world.