by Jack Williamson
Utterly benevolent, more dreadful than anything evil, these perfect and eternal keepers of mankind prohibited even the freedom of despair.
Originally published as a novelette (With Folded Hands) and expanded to novel form a year later, The Humanoids opens with a human race that’s spread across the galaxy but never managed to shed itself of war. Forester and his assistant Ironsmith, both high-level scientists, meet with the world president, where it’s disclosed to a select few that an invincible army of machines is approaching, tasked with protecting man from himself.
The protection involves isolating man from anything that may cause injury: riding a bike, smoking, drinking, using a ladder, closing a door, etc. Any activity that could result in harm is now off limits, including simply feeling angry, and those slow to adhere to new policy are drugged to the point their unsatisfactory lives are washed away, leaving them happy:
“Forgetfulness is the most useful key we have discovered to human happiness.”
Forester rebels against these new rules, regardless of the new regimen tripling the lifespan of humans, and he actively works against the new order by planning its destruction. Ironsmith embraces mankind’s new protectors, and he quickly acquiesces to their demands and helps them realize the vision of a safe but sedated Man. Both are on the front lines of the changeover.
In many ways this is hard science fiction, heavy on science and the application of technology. It’s a lively story, however, so don’t expect to be bogged down in pages of scientific exposition—they’re present, but the novel still moves quickly.
Thematically, this book has some big things to say. Or at least it meditates on a subject that’s always been important and is critical today:
How much freedom are you willing to give up for more safety? Or, how much safety are you willing to forego to remain free?
It’s a huge issue for us, and blundering about gives us abominable laws where we can detain suspects indefinitely and allows a government to monitor any and all communications–for our own safety. So yes, this is necessary reading from a science fiction grandmaster.
“Our function is to guard men from the consequences of their own ignorance and folly and vice. You cannot call that evil, sir.”
5- (4+) stars