Uncanny Valley by M.T. O’Byrne
• • • M • • •
Miranda was looking at her reflection in the shop-door window, when an old man wearing several coats said as he passed by, “What does a mirror look like when it’s not working.” It wasn’t a question. It seemed like a fragment of a poem, some sounds caught in the wind. Miranda watched the man round the corner and thought: broken, the mirror would look broken. However, thinking about this reminded her of what her boss had said yesterday. He’d used that word, too, but about her. The laudatory words come first — smart, dedicated, knowledgeable — and then, presaged by that ominous conjunction, the derogatory words — rude, redundant, broken. The last word stuck in her mind. Such an appellation, she thought, would have been more appropriately appended to a mechanical toy, not her, not someone as beautifully built as she was, not when she was so good at numbers, and hard working. And yet, here she was, standing before Edgars Used Robot Emporium with a box of treasured trinkets and a brass key.
Looking at the peeling paint on the window architraves, Miranda’s attention was brought to the lack of an apostrophe in the shop’s name – this was something seen everywhere now, and she considered it demonstrative of a degenerate age. The use of the word ‘emporium’ was also problematic. As she approached the shop door, she noticed indistinct figures moving through her reflection. And then, as she went to unlock the door, it opened.
“Welcome, Manager Miranda,” said one of the robots, which now appeared from behind the open door. Miranda stood motionless and did not reply. Instead, she thought about how far she had fallen: from financial expert in a world bank to a manager of a used robot shop. Her employment case officer had found her this job and said that Miranda was psychologically suited to it. The pay was a quarter of what she had been earning, but accommodation within the shop was included in the remuneration, and so she had taken it. The employment officer — a first-generation android with a touch screen on its chest — had displayed a smiley face.
The door opened a little wider and Miranda saw several robots looking at her. “Welcome, Manager Miranda,” they said, this time in unison.
Miranda walked into the shop, the robots clearing a path. She placed her box and bag on the counter and then turned to face them. There were six standing robots and one upper-body-only robot. They all stared at her, which made her feel uncomfortable, so she turned back to her boxes. “What are your designated build dates and specifications?” she asked.
“I am William,” said one of the robots. “I am like you, Miranda. I also worked in a bank.”
William, she thought, an odd name for a robot, but not a name at odds with the time in which it was built. The manufacturer had appended such a name to the first financial robots to make them seem more human, or, at least, not so mechanical. William was a name that engendered trust and even, the advertisers hoped, a sense of fraternity. Despite this, the William robots were made obsolete when they were found to have more personality than their human co-workers. The next series of financial robots were simply given a number for a name and stripped of personality – they were a great success. Miranda had worked with a William robot when she first started at the bank and had secretly envied its skills, had wished that she was a William robot.
Her eyes downcast, Miranda turned again to face the robots; properly the products. “Good day, William,” she said. The other robots then listed their build dates, primary functions, last employment, market price and time spent on the shelves, as it were. In addition to these robots, there were racks of parts: hands, arms, legs, eyes of various sorts, processing units, knotted bundles of multi-colored wires, and complete heads, some operational and disturbingly communicative.
“Don’t mind the heads,” William said. “Being unable to move they’ll do anything to start up a conversation.”
Miranda said she did not mind the heads. She picked one up and placed it upright so that it could see out the front window. The other heads pleaded that they might also be stood upright. She cleared some shelf space so that each head could see outside. All the heads became quiet, their attention transfixed by the uncertainty of the world beyond the shop’s confines.
“I’d like to see my quarters now, William.”
“Yes, Manager Miranda. You have your own recharge space.”
‘Til Death Do Us Party
Call for Help
What Pavel Found
The Girl in the Glass Case
The Teacher’s Connection
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