I've greatly enjoyed your coverage of some of the work of one of my favorite authors, Roger Zelazny, and this is possibly my favorite of his stories. I have to correct Brandon on one point: the text does not give Beta a gender until the final sentence. Zelazny is quite clever at avoiding gendered pronouns for any of the machines save Frost and Mordel. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he even attempted to keep the two of them neuter, but found it unsustainable, so he added the bit about Solcom giving Frost "a name and personal pronoun." I'm curious as to whether most first-time readers interpret Beta as female throughout - it's been over thirty years since I first read the story, but I recall being delightfully surprised by that part of the ending.
I also disagree with the theory that Solcom and Divcom were created by opposing powers, because it's essential to their their conflict that they were originally part of the same "chain of command." Their dispute is essentially fallacious, as Frost perceives once he becomes human. The idea of, say, the America vs. Soviet conflict extending past the death of the species would certainly be ironic, and there are still shades of it amongst the Jobean dispute of the machines. But my interpretation is that the causus belli between the Powers is their human creators' failure to think through their contingency planning.
Stories built around genuine, hard-won hope always seem to touch me most deeply, and this rereading has made me certain that this story helped wire me that way. Now to listen to "The Mary Ellen Carter" with a tear in my eye. Thanks!
I really enjoyed reading this rich story, the rich discussion on the podcast and the ponderings on this forum. Especially as for the Romanticist in Zelazny giving Frost - or maybe better: the probable descendants telling this story - his/their voice.
What wasn't a big topic in this discussion, was the weird element. There are the questions for the reader: what happened to humanity? Why does Frost want to be human? Also the questions about awe and the sublime are there. But there isn't really any direct unsettling feeling in those questions and the way in which Frost is handling them. I think what CAN be seen as weird, is Frost not able to cope with his mind being in a human body. But then again, he eventually gets used to it after all. For me the story would be more interesting and more unsettling if the conclusion would be that there is no way to become human for Frost - it's just too scary to be one (and that would fit with some Lovecraft-stories about relocated minds) - but I know the 'dramatic/mythical' form Zelazny used and the purpose of the story are not compatible with such an ending.
That is not to say I didn't like the story - it's the best Zelazny story I read this far and it really makes you think about what being human is or should be, and that's what the best sf should be about.
Wow, I loved this story. It felt so lively and engaging compared to Graveyard Heart, which I found turgid and uninteresting. Zelazny raised so many interesting philosphical questions about humanity and personhood here, all revolving around the central issue of what it means to be human I suppose, but there's so much within that.
Like Glenn, I definitely saw more parallels with Job than with Faust, but even then, it seemed like just a jumping off point really. Which is good, because I'm not sure how worthwhile a straight retelling of either story but with robots would be. While there is an element of temptation in the relationship between Frost and Mordel, the story isn't about that (or suffering, or the nature of good and evil). Instead, it's about discovering purpose beyond simply following instructions, which again, is part of the nature of humanity. By attempting to become human, Frost is actually giving the robots/computers a reason to rebuild (they're rebuilding it for humanity after all).
There's another element to this, though. On several occasions, the matter of implicit vs explicit instructions is raised. SOLCOM (because it is a logical machine), assumes Frost will follow implicit instructions based on the other explicit instructions he has been given. Frost instead (because he is 'flawed') uses the gaps in the implicit instructions to go beyond his programming. Frost is already capable of a more human-like way of thinking before he becomes human. But then again, both SOLCOM and DIVCOM attempt to use a gap in their explicit instructions to each justify its own being in charge of the rebuilding. So there's ambiguity as to the line between human and computer, and even a hypocrisy in the way SOLCOM treats Frost.
Zelazny's use of the appreciation of art/nature as a measure of true humanity is also interesting. Following the logic of the story, I'm not sure Frost would be able to appreciate these things even once he's in a human body. He gains the senses, but still has no frame of reference for appreciation. He may acquire that over time, and of course his descendants would be another matter.
Personally, I understood SOLCOM and DIVCOM to have been created by the same agency at the same time, with the latter simply being a back-up of the former. For me, their disagreement is a sublime farce that culminates in their both being overruled by Frost, and I don't think there's any need for different powers (national or sub-national) to have been involved. It does make me wonder whether other nations' rebuilding computers are out there somewhere though...
Also, for what it's worth, I didn't read the Beta machine as explicitly female (until the very end), but it is an easy understanding to reach based on Frost being explicitly male and the Beta machine being his counterpart. I did feel like Zelazny's attitudes to gender were a weakness of the story, but that's purely a twenty-first-century judgement of a story written in the 1950s.
Finally, I thought this story worked fine as a stand-alone novella. I think a full novel would detract a bit from the snappy way it's written. What I would love to see, though, is more of these short story parables from the same world.
It's more likely that SOLCOM and DIVCOM were contracted by two different agencies, like the USAF and US Army, to two different contractors.
I'm so glad you enjoyed our episodes. I can say that I definitely read Beta as a woman throughout, though now (a year removed from recording these episodes) I couldn't say why. Like you, I'd be interested to hear about other experiences with that.
I probably advocated the Warsaw Pact vs. Nato understanding of this, but I like yours much better. Why not have multiple contingency plans for the nuclear apocalypse with the understanding that they probably won't both survive. But then what if they do? This is also what Neal Stephenson does in Seven Eves, actually.
We've really loved getting introduced to Zelazny's short fiction. I like all three of these stories more than Amber and A Night in the Lonesome October, and I'm really excited that we will shortly be recording a pair of episodes about The Furies as well. I hope we'll continue with these for a long time.