“Moxon’s Master,” Ambrose Bierce, 1909 – An inventor and his friend debate the definitions of life and intelligence. The scientist speculates as to whether a man—or plants, or atoms—can be thought to “think,” by virtue of some aspect of their movement (e.g., plant roots) or the ability to “co-operate” into self-organization (e.g., crystals). The inventor claims that “consciousness is the creature of Rhythm.” The narrator returns to find the inventor playing chess with what is later revealed to be an automaton (robot). The monster moves uncannily, with gestures that “looks theatrical.” The friend is repulsed by the thought that the scientist is now consorting with monsters. At the conclusion, the inventor wins the chess game and is killed by the infuriated automaton.
Comments: See H. Bruce Franklin’s commentary on the story and Bierce in Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Franklin quotes Edna Kenton’s statement that “Moxon’s Master” is the “master story that keys all the other” in Bierce’s corpus. Wikipedia notes that this story contains one of the first descriptions of a robot in English literature. Read here in Wondermakers and A Century of Science Fiction. In the latter, Knight introduces the story by referencing other automata, including Talos, from Greek myth, and Poe’s expose: “Maelzel’s Chess Player.” ISFDB entry. The text is available online at Shortstories.
For a synopsis of the fascinating debate between Everett Bleiler and Franz Rottensteiner over the meaning of this story (a debate based on the assumed sexual orientation of the characters, Moxon, Haley (a blacksmith), and the narrator, and a possible love triangle), see Daniel Canty’s analysis in Science Fiction Studies. Using genre conventions governing the robot, Canty provides a third interpretation which also treats the automaton is a “false automaton.”
The story is perhaps also interesting for its depiction of the master-student, elder-youth relationships, where here the elder scientist is the daring rebel rather than the cautious conservative. When the student ruminates on the hierarchy of life–a symbol of scientific order–the master presents heretical views, e.g., an argument for a definition of life that assigns more agency and import to the “lower” life forms. While the master considers this possibility with curiosity, the narrator reacts with fear to the scientist’s strange behaviors and theories. The younger man is particularly alarmed by the sight of the automaton, which confirms that the scientist is willing to consort with the forbidden and inhuman.
Author: Wikipedia: “Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (born June 24, 1842; died sometime after December 26, 1913) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist.”