For a Breath I Tarry

By Roger Zelazny
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This book is the template of what a short story should be. I’ve read this thing a million times. I read it again today and it made me want to cry. I have to say, nobody gets killed, there are no murderous terminator robots, there are no super-action power suits, there are no roving unmanned airplanes in the sky – but this story is just incredible.

Experts who have recommended this book

In an interview on Robotics

Interview Extract:

Lastly you’ve chosen For a Breath I Tarry, a post-apocalyptic novelette from 1966. Man has disappeared but the robot he has created lives on… Tell me why you chose this book. 

I love to think about the world from the perspective of a machine. As human beings, we naturally can’t separate ourselves from everything that we see. We judge everything relative to ourselves, to humanity and humankind. When something is cold, that means it’s cold to human beings because we all function within a similar temperature range. Every single thing that we do is filtered through our embodiment. 

If you’re examining human beings or you’re thinking about people, I think it’s really instructive to try to step out of your own human-ness and try to look at human beings like an alien anthropologist, or like a machine, because they don’t necessarily share our embodiment. They really don’t have that much in common with us at all, except that they can be intelligent like we can. This book is the template of what a short story should be. I’ve read this thing a million times. I read it again today and it made me want to cry. I, hands down, have to say, nobody gets killed, there are no murderous terminator robots, there are no super-action power suits, there are no roving unmanned airplanes in the sky – but this story is just incredible. 

Why does it make you cry? 

First of all, it’s one of those classic sci-fi stories that builds up until a great twist at the very end, so you’re rewarded for going along on this ride, and you just show up on the last page and go ‘Aaaaaahhhhhh… Awesome.’ What’s fascinating to me about the story is that misery and happiness are both human constructs. You watch a post-apocalyptic movie and you think to yourself, ‘Oh man, how sad, the whole world’s destroyed, everybody is dead. Bummer!’ But if you’re a machine with a totally different value system, or even if you’re a rat, and all your rat buddies are doing great, who cares that all the humans are dead? 

In this story it’s a post-apocalyptic world, where no humans are alive. Machines are basically carrying out these instructions that they received from humans eons ago. There haven’t been people in ages, but the machines sort of idolise them almost as gods, because our word was all-powerful. They were totally subservient to us, only we destroyed ourselves. They don’t realise they’re in this post-apocalyptic world, it’s just their world. They don’t realise that when they blow up a bridge, and rebuild another bridge, and build cities for people that are never going to show up and purify water for people that are never going to drink it – they don’t realise how futile and sad that is. And at one point in this book, a machine finds a way to become human and he shows up and he looks around and within five seconds, the horror of the situation comes crashing in on him and he begs to go back to being a machine. He realises that he’s the only human in a destroyed planet, a destroyed race, that he’s surrounded by all-powerful machines that are performing countless pointless actions, bound by the idiot forces of physics day in and day out. It all comes down on him at once, and it’s such a powerful moment. It really makes you realise that without human beings things aren’t happy and they aren’t sad. They just are. I, for one, think that sucks. I’m very pro-human in that regard. 

This idea – that humans are more qualitative and machines are more quantitative – is that going to be the case for ever? 

There’s a big debate. A human being witnesses action A and is horrified, and the human being reacts – he screams, and covers his eyes. Then you have a robot who looks like a human being. It witnesses action A and it screams and it covers its eyes and for all you can tell it’s horrified. The human is feeling emotions, it’s flooded with them. The machine is looking at measurements of the world and then creating the same behaviour. And the question is, is there a difference? I think that there’s a pretty good case that there’s not, that what you see is what matters for all intents and purposes. 

There’s a thing called the Turing test and it’s one way of judging machine intelligence. And the way the test works is this – if you want to figure out if a machine has human-level intelligence you just talk to it, and if you can’t tell it’s not a human, then who cares? It might as well have human-level intelligence. For all intents and purposes, it does. Everything else is just philosophical mumbo jumbo. 

Do you think one day you and I could both be robots having this discussion, that I could be interviewing you about humans as a topic? 

I do think there is going to be a blending between the two. I think that’s another thing that’s really interesting about this short story, which is that these machines rule everything that happens on the earth. If there were still people they could destroy them, they could do whatever they wanted. They’re like gods. But ultimately they’re still tools. They’re just really complicated tools that can make their own decisions. And I think as human beings we’ve always been part of our tools. If you take away all a human being’s tools, then we are just naked, defenceless, clawless, fangless, helpless creatures waiting to be killed by either the elements or other creatures. Human beings simply cannot be separated from their tools. 

For that reason I think that in the future, our tools will become even more a part of us. Some people will say that this makes us robots. Even so, human beings will take on advanced cognitive and physical abilities that come from using tools. We already do. I’m wearing glasses right now: when the glasses become part of my retina, will that be it? Will I be a robot then? Whenever I look up a fact on the internet from a neural implant, will that make me a robot? Yes, at some point we will be robots talking to each other. 

Read full interview

About Daniel Wilson

Daniel H Wilson’s upcoming novel Robopocalyse will be published in June and is being brought to life on the big screen by director Steven Spielberg in a planned 2013 release. He holds an MSc in Machine Learning, and an MSc and a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. His non-fiction works include How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which was recently optioned by actor Jack Black and director Steve Pink, and Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling SmackdownA Boy and His Bot, a novel for ages nine to 12, has recently been published. He lives in Portland, Oregon.