“Two-Handed Engine,” Kuttner and Moore, 1955 – War has destroyed human communities, such that the concepts of connection and family are undermined. For a time, humanity wallows in hedonism and selfishness, having constructed robots capable of providing any material good. Humanity even loses interest in reproduction, spending most of its time in Escape Machines. A concerned man in a position of power, fearing that humanity is about to die out, programs the robots with the directive to teach humanity to be responsible and self-reliant once again.
The robots decide to withdraw humanity’s “unearned luxuries,” reintroduce the concept of “work,” and set human beings loose in a world in which the only crime is murder. However, if caught, the penalty for murder is severe and, since the robots have created a surveillance-society, the likelihood of conviction is high. Convicted murderers are followed closely by a Fury, a terrifying robot that will–at a date and time known only to the Fury–execute the murderer from behind.
However, an “overseer” named Hartz is able to convince Danner, a comfort-craving man who remembers the good old days, that he can turn Furies “off.” He shows him a screen on which a Fury is being taken “off” its prey and Danner is convinced. In exchange for money, Danner agrees to murder Hartz’s boss, whom he intends to replace. But the plan fails; Danner is quickly discovered, as expected, but Hartz does not call the Fury off. Hartz, having not committed murder, is not given a Fury and appears to Danner to be getting away clean. With a Fury at his heels, he confronts Hartz, who admits that the “proof” was only a clip from a film, a work of fiction. Danner attacks Hartz but is prevented from murder by his Fury; however, Hartz rashly pulls a gun and shoots Danner, killing him. Now guilty of murder, he quickly erases all data relating to the crime from the computers. But his ability to do so fills him with doubt, creating a ghostly Fury that will haunt him forever. The story concludes: “It was as if sin had come anew into the world, and the first man felt again the first inward guilt. So the computers had not failed, after all.”
Comments: Read in Metal Smile. Begins with a mention of Orestes and the Furies. The title is from Milton’s poem, “Lycidas.” Themes of the hacking/computer programming, conscience/sin, guilt, greed, fate. See the more detailed review of the conviction-by-computer process at Variety SF.