Men of Iron by Guy Endore from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
Anton has worked at a factory making pins for over fifty years. He has a gold crescent on his coveralls to prove it. He’s old, now, and shakes just as badly as the machines he works with. The manager would never consider firing him, even though he makes mistakes. At night he nods to the watchman and goes home to his wife, who is usually already asleep.
Then, one day, an engineer comes in to check out the machine. He says that the way it shakes shows that it’s inefficient and needs repair. They install an automatic feeder and chuck, which not only stops the vibrations but means that there’s nothing for Anton to do but watch and make sure nothing breaks. He eats his sandwich, barely able to hold the bread for the tremors him his hands, and wishes someone would instal an automatic feeder in him. Then he has this super weird dream sequence where he’s being force-fed pins.
Eventually, the machine is given the same crescent as Anton, with a presentation ceremony and everything. One of the managers has a side conversation where he tells the story of how the ocean became salty, an old parable about a magical salt mill that never stopped. Its owner eventually threw it into the sea, but it kept on churning, and before long the sea was full of salt.
Anton comes in after the ceremony, sees the crescent, and promptly dies. The machine picks itself up from the floor, takes Anton’s body, and carries him home. His wife wakes up just long enough to notice that her husband is back, but he’s changed – he’s much quieter, and he doesn’t shake at all.
This is a reprint, originally published in 1940.
This is an odd little story, with a good twist and fine writing. The attention to detail is super strong, to the point of being kind of gross at times (aging involves bodily fluids that the story is not afraid to mention, which I respect). The message is clear and probably was timely, and the whole thing comes off as tragic, creepy, and kind of heartwarming all at the same time. It’s a really strong piece of writing!
On the other hand, the story was kind of hard to follow at the end – I had to read the last two paragraphs twice to catch the implication that the machine had become Anton, and wasn’t just carrying him home like he was his father or something. It doesn’t break the story for me, though.
I just wish the connection from the main plot to the salt grinder parable had been stronger. I see how it ties in thematically – endless salt, endless pins, it’s not hard – but it doesn’t go anywhere. The story isn’t about over saturating the market through increased efficiency, it’s about how machines are replacing humans. I think the author could have written a longer story about these themes, and to be honest, if he had, I’d read it. But as it stands it doesn’t quite all fit together.
The story itself is topical, and it’s a topic that, where I live at least, has been obsolete since before I was born. The factories here all closed up in the 80’s, if not earlier. Some of them were made irrelevant by new technology, as happens in the story, but more were outsourced to China and India, where the CEOs can get away with paying their workers less. The fear of being replaced by technology isn’t gone in 2017, but it’s not the first thing on most people’s minds, and so the story doesn’t resonate as strongly as I think it deserves to.
Still, stories like this hold up as emblematic of the fears of their day, and it is valuable if for no other reason than reminding us of where we’ve come from.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
It’s well written with a good twist, but it’s a topical story that doesn’t translate that well to the modern day.