The Creature from Cleveland Depths
By Fritz Leiber
Published by LibriVox
Read by Gregg Margarite
I really did not know what to expect from this story. I knew it would not be Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but to tell the truth before this I had only read a few Leiber stories that were not starring that duo ill met in Lankhmar, although the only one I recall by name was A Specter is Haunting Texas which I barely remember many details now but do recall enjoying. So when I saw this one on the LibriVox site I shrugged and told myself, “Why not?”
In spite of having a title that sounds like a cheesy monster movie this is actually a pretty good story even if I saw where it was going very early on. I say I saw where it was going but had I been reading it in 1962 when it was published I likely would not have, and I don’t mean because at the time I was only nine years old. No, back then, in spite of all those cheesy monster movies and many SF stories that warned of technology gone awry, the prevailing attitude was that technology was good and would cure the world’s ills… and you know what? That really has not changed. Oh sure we have all sorts of warnings about our food, the dangers of a microwaves and other radiation, etc. But we still love our iPhones, tablets, laptops, computerized cars and so forth. Go Organic if you like, wear only natural fibers, also only died with natural colors and eschew all technology if you can, but if you do you are still in a very small minority and while there is a lot of lip service about getting back to healthy nature, we are, most of us, addicted to our technology. Just try not to get addicted to (utter un-) reality TV.
This story was also published under the title “The Lone Wolf” and features a writer and his wife who have declined to move underground with most of the rest of the populace when the “Cold War” turns hot. Down below, it seems the populace is losing its creative ability it is up to the few surface dwellers to come up with innovations to meet the needs of the troglodytes. So at the start of the story one of our characters comments that he would like a device that would remind him of appointments and other scheduled events in such a way that he could not ignore it.
My first thought was, “You mean a smartphone?” Keep in mind this story was published in 1962 so the closest device commonly available were wristwatches that could be set to sound an alarm at a preset time. There weren’t very mean of them at that time and they were not cheap, unlike the electronic ones that came along a decade or so later.
The developer he says it to takes up the idea and brings it to his engineers in spited of the face that a minute after suggesting such a device, his friend decides he really would not want such a thing anyway. Soon the developer returns with a “Tickler” on his shoulder (under his clothes). The device reminds him by tickling his shoulder until he does whatever he has wanted to be reminded to do. I thought this was a rather round-about way to do it, but maybe that is just my 21st Century perspective.
All this would have been fine, I suppose, but the engineers (and the developer) are not willing to let it stand as it is, so they start adding features, auto-medication and something that sounds like the illegitimate offspring of Siri and Cortana which apparently gains sentience and seems to be synchronized amid all the other Ticklers. This mechanical sentience begins to enslave the humans who wear them, which is nearly everyone and it is up to our heroes to stop them.
On the surface, it’s just a silly story, but as I said above, when you consider it a second time you can also see it as a cautionary tale to think about next time your phone not only reminds you about your morning appointment, but gives you a weather forecast, directions of how to get there, your expected travel time, suggestions as to where to have lunch, and posts updates to your Facebook page for you without bothering to be told to do so.
Gregg Margarite reads the story in an engaging manner with full emotional interpretation of the dialogue and a narrative voice that is at once sardonic and yet reminiscent of an old-time itinerant bard or story-teller. I can easily imagine him sitting in the central market in a medieval town telling folks all the news of the latest happening in Paris, Genoa and London along with the gossip about who one of the princesses in Germany got caught sneaking out of the palace with.
In summary, we have a story that you can take at face value as simple escape literature or as a view, if somewhat obscured, of what technology can do if allowed to improve without regard for consequences, and it is all brought to us in a personal manner by Gregg Margarite.