The Uncanny Valley

(c) Todd Jordan

I have always been a good person. No saint, mind you, but I have led a good Christian life. As a biologist my career suffered for my scruples. I refused to become involved with the petty bickering and political manoeuvres which are so vital for success in academic life. I was happy to stay silent and do my part, small though it might be, in exploring the mysteries of God’s universe. These days, people don’t understand how one can be both a scientist and a Christian. These people know little of either discipline for the two are not so different. Both have strict rules, rules which cannot be broken but prove rewarding for those who have patience and faith. It seems so unfair then that both God and science should abandon me now, so late in a life spent in service of both.

It was my birthday and my son decided to make it special, not realising that birthdays are only special to the young, but odious to the aging and irrelevant to the aged. His wife made a sofa cushion with icing and candles on it. We sat around, watching the children watch television, saying stupid things like “Joseph is the spitting image of his grandfather.” This is just not true—he has the same eternally bored face as his mother.

The priest arrived then and said, “You never told me it was your birthday. Twenty-one again is it?”

We all laughed at that and put on some stupid party hats. When the doorbell rang my son volunteered to see who it was, saying, “Who on earth could that be?”

A delivery man wheeled in a large wooden crate and they all shouted, “Surprise!”

“That’s a cheap looking coffin,” I said.

After signing off on the delivery, my son used a hammer and screwdriver to pry open the crate and took out what looked like a large metal mannequin.

“You bought me a doll?”

“It’s a robot, Dad, to keep you company.”

The children started to rip packing foam out of the box and fling it around the kitchen like confetti.

“Haven’t you got any homes to be getting back to?” I said. They left me with the robot.

“Aren’t you lonely, Dad?” my son likes to ask me.

“No,” I tell him.

“Well, I’ll come and visit on the weekend.”

He says this like he is doing me a favour. To his mind I have nothing better to do than make small talk over tea with his bored wife, coo over his two children or reassure him that yes, I’m perfectly happy living on my own, and no, I wouldn’t be happier with people my own age.

I often say in a joking way, “Don’t you have any homes to be going to at all?”

Then they will leave and I’ll walk up the hill to evening mass. Sometimes I meet the priest outside, if it’s unavoidable, and he’ll say, “I might drop in for a spot of tea tomorrow, Mr Murphy, if it’s no bother?”

The robot was a good head shorter than me, a clever decision on the designer’s part.

The metal plating had a nice polished chrome finish so that when I looked down at its bald cranium, I could see the whole kitchen reflected back at me. The eyes were equally reflective, like the eyes of a fish, and the mouth was thin and expressionless. There was a large red button positioned on its upper left breast, a power button, and when I pressed it the eyes began to whir to life, blue and bright. The spine straightened up and it stood to attention like a butler.

“What’s your name, Robot?” I asked.

“I do not have a name.”

“I do not have a name, Sir.”

“I do not have a name, Sir,” it repeated.

Despite myself, I was impressed. It really seemed alive but of course, it was just very clever science.

At first, I admit, I found its presence unnerving. I would be sitting in the kitchen, happily absorbed in a newspaper, when my eyes would dart over to the stranger in the corner. My brain would tell me that there was an intruder, that this wasn’t right, that there shouldn’t be anyone there. I tried turning its power off but this made things worse. Now, instead of a stranger my eye found a corpse, with its head bowed forward and its heavy arms hanging down. I telephoned customer service to see if I could return it.

“Well, first off,” the young customer service agent informed me, “seeing as how each unit is customised to its owner’s specifications, Famitech Industries cannot accept returns, unless there was a problem in the manufacturing process.”

She then proceeded down through her script, telling me that I should give the unit a name, that I should get to know the unit, that the unit can be a carer or even a friend if you let it. I told her I didn’t need a carer or a friend. She said that everybody needs friends, even old people. Next she enquired whether I had a dishwasher. She suggested that I think of the robot just like any other household appliance.

“Give the unit some jobs around the house,” she said. “You will be amazed at the things it can do.”

I now had a very expensive, walking, talking dishwasher. The girl was right in her way; I did find it easier living with it, now that it wasn’t just standing in the corner staring at me. I could read my paper in peace and I actually found it quite comforting, listening to the water gushing and the plates clattering. It gave the illusion that there was someone else in the house with me, but someone I didn’t have to interact with, except to say, “Robot, wash the dishes,” which it seemed happy to do. After tea I would just push the power button on its chest and it would slump forward, dead to the world. Then I would walk up the hill to evening mass.

One such evening, as I was reading the Irish Times, I found that I could not lift my cup of tea. My arm was numb and when I tried to stand up, I fell off my chair, conking my head off the tiles of the floor and sending bits of cup flying across the room. I managed to squirm onto my back using my left arm and I looked up at the ceiling. I tried to say something, I’m not sure what. “Help” probably or maybe I just cursed. I became aware of the busy sound of the dishes in the sink and my eye caught the wooden carving of the virgin and child, which had been hanging on the wall over the kitchen table for years. I remember thinking to myself that this was a very peaceful way to go, and I hoped it would be a very long time before anyone came to find me. That my body would just stay here forever, with the virgin mother watching over it and the robot washing the dishes.

I woke up in hospital surrounded by a strange array of expressions: the concerned face of my son, the empty stare of my daughter-in-law, and the bright eyes of my dishwasher. They told me that I had had a stroke, that the robot had called emergency services and that I was lucky to survive. I was so happy—I feel stupid about this now—I wanted them all to come over so I could thank them or at least squeeze their hands, even the robot. Looking back it seems pathetic. The simple rushing emotions of a weak body which manages to keep sucking air for a little longer.

My speech was slightly impaired but conversation being an art I rarely practised, this did not bother me very much. The biggest hindrance to my life after the stroke was mobility. I am not the kind of man who was ever meant to be in a wheelchair. I have always enjoyed being active, going for walks in the park, walking to the shops for my paper or walking up to mass. I was now confined to the house. The paper and groceries were delivered by my son and the priest would drop in now and again, but this was no substitute. I don’t go to mass to see the priest. I don’t go to mass to gossip with the other parishioners. Mass is not about ego and posturing and superficialities. It is about stripping all that dross away and feeling those common currents, which flow from God to man, and from man to fellow man. I spent long days curling rosary beads around my fingers, staring at the carving on my kitchen wall and being drawn into its etchings. The virgin seemed sweet and loving, unafraid, uncorrupted, rejoicing in her human child. Yet the face of the baby was imbued with the divine, full of knowledge and mystery, and it seemed to him as natural as instinct. How could this Jesus of the manger become the lonely body withered on the cross?

I could not resolve these two Gods as one. If they exist at all, they exist as one, but I could not and cannot comprehend this.

Gradually, my strength returned and I was glad to return to orthodoxy and the evening service. I was still in a wheelchair so I could not make the journey up the hill on my own. My son kindly volunteered for this duty but neither of us found the experience enjoyable. He fidgeted in his suit during the service, he mumbled through his prayers and he didn’t know when to sit or when to kneel. I found it very distracting. We suffered through this arrangement for a few weeks, until such time as he was seen to fulfil his filial obligations and I wouldn’t seem too ungrateful. After that, I insisted that the robot could accompany me to mass. He had already saved my life, I said, let’s find out what he can do for my soul.

The other parishioners were amazed by this new addition to the congregation. They all came over for a peek and said things like, “Sure, isn’t technology a marvellous thing?” and “Who could have imagined a robot in our parish?” The priest walked up to me and said he was glad I was looking well and wasn’t it the grace of God. I asked him to please excuse my unusual friend, that he was a protestant and wouldn’t be taking part in Holy Communion. With all of the pleasantries out of the way, the service started and the parishioners soon forgot about the heretic in the aisles, who didn’t kneel or bow or pray, but just watched over me, making soft mechanical sounds with his eyes.

The idea of a dishwasher going to mass every evening is a little too much for a rational mind to bear, and so I began to expand the duties assigned to the robot. He was a fast learner. I would show him what he needed to do, and he would just focus in with those blue eyes whirring furiously, copying it all onto some hidden hard drive. He hoovered the floors, he scrubbed the windows, he ironed my clothes and he helped me to prepare dinner. Once or twice, I even asked him to read to me as I ate. He could handle the Irish Times quite well, but when I gave him Shakespeare to read the flat tone of his voice just made it seem ridiculous and I had to ask him to stop.

Finally, after months of physiotherapy appointments, I was back on my own two feet, albeit with the aid of a walking stick. I made my slow rounds of the house, checking that every plug was out and every light turned off. The robot was ironing my shirt.

“You can stop now, Robot,” I told him. I put on my shirt and was about to put him to sleep—I had my finger on the button—but then I decided against it. “I’m going to mass,” I said.

He watched me as I turned off the lights. The room became blue in the darkness.

It was my first time walking to mass on my own in almost a year so I returned to the house exhausted. As I hobbled up the driveway I could see the dull blue of the kitchen through the curtains. I opened the door and walked down the hall to the kitchen door. He wasn’t at the ironing board where I’d left him, or at the sink, but I could hear his joints and his eyes moving.

I found him kneeling at the kitchen table, staring up at the image of the infant Jesus and the mother Mary. His eyes were like torches beneath them, bathing them in blue light: the virgin looked cold, the child looked terrified. When he stood up he seemed to stare at them even more closely, his eyes buzzing, recording, copying. I didn’t say anything but he heard my walking stick on the tiles and turned to look at me, waiting patiently.

I grabbed the iron from the board and began to strike down on his upturned face. At first my blows did nothing, but then a small dent appeared, then another and another, until they began to form a crater beneath the point of the iron. He did not scream, ask me to stop or make a sound of any kind. It was all very rhythmical and calm.

I am a blacksmith beating a kink out of metal, I thought.

The head was bent at an unnatural angle from the body. There was a final crack, a spark and it went spinning across the floor.

I should make a cup of tea and go to bed, I thought.

Instead, I watched his eyes fade beneath the sink, the last quiet gasp for the light coming in, the small faint glow of the light gazing out.

John Keating

John Keating

John Keating lives in Cork, Ireland where he co-edits The Penny Dreadful literary magazine.

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