Thursday, April 11, 2024

Milton Lesser’s Slaves to the Metal Horde

Milton Lesser’s short novel Slaves to the Metal Horde was published in the science fiction magazine Imagination in June 1954.

Stephen Marlowe (1928-2008) was an American pulp writer who wrote crime fiction under his own name and science fiction under the name Milton Lesser.

Slaves to the Metal Horde is a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale. The Third World War has ended disastrously. An army of robot warriors had been constructed to serve as the ultimate weapon but before they could be used bacteriological weapons were unleashed. The result was a plague that raged out of control. Civilisation collapsed everywhere.

Johnny Hope is twenty-three years old and lives in a small agricultural village, Hamilton Village. It’s a harsh primitive life but the villagers survive. Johnny however has been forced to leave. He is suspected of being infected with the Plague.

He has some vague plan to reach a large now deserted city once known as New York but after a day or so he realises he really does have the Plague. All he can do is lie down and wait to die.

That’s when Diane finds him. Diane, a beautiful blonde girl, belongs to a vey different kind of community,  community of nomadic hunters. She is one of the Shining Ones. These are the tiny minority of people who survive the Plague. They survive, but they will always be carriers of the disease. They are shunned by the rest of society.

Johnny survives. He is now one of the Shining Ones. Diane and Johnny are attracted to each other but there’s another bond between them. They both suspect that the Robots are spreading the Plague. The Robots are now masters of the Earth and are almost worshipped as gods but there are many who fear them. With good reason. The Robots do not see themselves as friends of humanity.

Johnny has some problems fitting in with the Shining Ones. His main problem is Harry Starbuck, a sneaky character with big plans. Johnny has even bigger problems when Diane falls into the clutches of the Robots. Along with an ageing scholar he sets off on a rescue mission which is likely to end in a showdown with the Robots.

This is a fairly typical post-apocalyptic tale but with one rather interesting feature - the nature of the Robots. The big fear has always been that robots/computers will develop consciousness. That would give them free will. That in turn could mean that they would no longer be under human control - they could become our masters.

In this story it’s not clear if that has actually happened. These Robots might just be slavishly trying to follow their original programming without understanding that that programming is no longer relevant or appropriate. Or they might have achieved actual consciousness and free will. Lesser keeps this nicely ambiguous for as long as possible, which means we’re kept guessing about what the Robots’ long-term objectives are. They might not even have any coherent long-term objectives. Or they might have a fiendish master plan.

There are also some interesting questions of loyalty on the part of the humans. Some see the Robots as saviours, some see them as a menace, and some ambitious humans see coöperation with the Robots as a path to power. The humans are divided between the uninfected ones and the Shining Ones and the two groups fear and mistrust each other. Even among those who fear the Robots there is no agreement on what, if anything, can be done to oppose them. This is made more difficult because no-one is quite sure exactly what powers the Robots possess.

It’s an engaging story with fairly good ideas, a few intriguing nuances, some action and some romance. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Joseph E. Kelleam’s Hunters Out of Time in a two-novel paperback edition.

I’ve also reviewed a very early Milton Lesser sci-fi novel, Somewhere I’ll Find You, and it’s highly entertaining. And I’ve reviewed the hardboiled crime novel Model for Murder which he wrote as Stephen Marlowe and it’s sexy, sleazy, trashy, pulp and generally terrific.

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