Friday, March 25, 2011

Brian Aldiss' "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" --a short story

"Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" is an intriguing short story by Brian Aldiss for several reasons. First, it's an interesting story in its own right. Second, it has a very interesting Biblical tie-in, and third, it's the basis for Steven Spielberg's SF film, A. I.: Artificial Intelligence. I will focus on the short story now and leave the film for the next post. There's a lot to say about the film, so I don't want to end up with a monstrous post.

Aldiss' story is split into two narrative lines. One is of Henry Swinton, Managing Director of Synthank, who gives a speech at an elaborate luncheon for the company directors, to celebrate the launching of its new product, an intelligent robot.

The second narrative line takes place at Henry Swinton's home, where his wife and his son, three-year-old David, are having problems communicating with each other. Neither seems to be able to get through to the other, which leads to considerable frustration for both.

Spoiler Warning: I will bring up significant plot elements and discuss the ending.

The narrator lets the reader know a few paragraphs into the story just what Monica's feelings are.

"She had tried hard to love him."

She is not a cruel or abusive mother; she just can't love him the way a mother should, or at least the way Monica thinks she should. On the other hand, David finds it impossible to talk to her and attempts to express his feelings by writing to her. He finds that impossible also, and fears that she won't even be able to understand what he has written.

Although Aldiss tends to be a bit ambiguous, the answer to the puzzle is revealed at the end. Monica ecstatically greets Henry when he comes home. They have received a letter from the Ministry of Population. After four years of waiting, they have been granted their greatest wish: they have received permission to have a child. The population is so great that parents have to gain government permission to have a child. Now, they can finally have a child. What is David?

The following conversation comes immediately afterwards:

"'What do we do about them?' Henry asked.

'Teddy's no trouble. He works well.' [Teddy is a walking, talking synthetic toy, in the shape of a teddy bear.]

'Is David malfunctioning?'

'His verbal communication-center is still giving trouble. I think he'll have to go back to the factory again.'

'Okay. We'll see how he does before the baby's born.'"

David is also a super-toy, just like Teddy, and while Aldiss does not spell this out, David appears to be a substitute for a real flesh-and-blood child. Considering the difficulties in communication and the narrator's initial remark that Monica tried hard to love him, I think that once David goes back to the factory, the Winstons will leave him there. Once the desired child has arrived, a substitute becomes a burden, especially if it isn't really appreciated. Even if David remains, he won't be their son, but a super-toy perhaps for their projected child.

This tale, I believe, echoes the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. Both Abraham and Sarah are very old, long past the usual childbearing age, yet God has promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great people.

Sarah, despairing of having a child, tells Abraham to go with her servant, Hagar, and get a child. Abraham does and Sarah immediately repents of what she has done. She is cruel to Hagar and God has to intervene, both to tell Hagar to stay and to tell Sarah that she should not mistreat Hagar and to have faith for she shall have a child. Hagar stays and gives birth to Ishmael. Shortly afterwards, Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Determined that her son Isaac shall be Abraham's only heir, she tells Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. Again, a substitute child becomes inconvenient and unwanted.

God == Ministry of Population

Abraham == Henry Swinton

Sarah == Monica Swinton

Abraham and Hagar == Ishmael

Abraham and Sarah == Isaac

Henry Swinton and the company that manufactures super-toys == David
Henry and Monica == their potential child

Aldiss' story provides the basis for the first part of Steven Spielberg's film, A. I. : Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg then moves to a different story for the inspiration of the second part of the film, that of Pinocchio, the story of a wooden puppet who went on a quest hoping to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into what he most desperately wants to be, a real human boy. But, that's a different post.


A comment by Chimpsky, see below, pointed out something I had missed in the story--the irony that not only the flowers in the
garden but also the many of the features of the house are also artificial or an illusion, and this is considered normal by both the husband and the wife. The only exception is the boy, whom she tried to love but couldn't. I wonder if this is a holdover from the Frankenstein's Monster theme, in which our creations one day might destroy us.


  1. Fred,

    Loved this post! I want to give a link to where people can read this story free online:

    I hope others will read it and post their thoughts.

  2. Cheryl,

    That's a good idea. I also hope others will read it and comment on it.

  3. One little thing - doesn't the story allude to the mother also being artifical (a la Stepford wives)? After David talks to Teddy about what is real ("Nobody knows what "real" really means" says Teddy) David then plucks an artificial rose that has a softness and beauty that reminds him of Mummy.

    1. Amazing insight!

    2. Unknown,

      Just what are you referring to?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    3. Melody.

      Are you acquainted with Unknown?

  4. Chimpsky,

    Interesting speculation. It's been awhile since I read the story. I want to think about this.

  5. Chimpsky,

    I have reread the story, and I can't find any other comments which suggest that the mother may also be artificial. However, your comment did point out something which I had missed--the irony in the situation that much of the house, as well as the flowers in the garden, are either artificial or an illusion, and this is very acceptable to the parents. The mother's dislike of the child, therefore, poses an interesting question: is this an example of our fears about artificial humans, the Frankenstein's Monster theme?

    One strong point in support of the mother's humanity is that they had just won the lottery and were now allowed to have a child. In an overpopulated world, creating artificial people who could bring more people into existence, doesn't seem logical to me. During the speech by the husband, he said that the newly created intelligent artificial person even lacked parts that were necessary for sexual activity.

    Thanks for the comments: they pushed me to reread the story and see something I had missed.

  6. I too suspect the mother is artificial, though able to reproduce. In his speech, Swinton hints that future A.I. beings will have this capability, even though the neuter serving-man does not ("more models, male and female--some of them without the limitations of this first one").

    The rose at the end seems the biggest confirmation that Monica is artificial. The rose is introduced early as a symbol for Monica, when she plucks one and shows it to David, and at the end he picks one as a reminder of her. But the roses are something the serving man remarks on (seemingly randomly)--"roses occasionally suffer from black spot . . . It is always advisable to purchase goods with guarantees, even if they cost slightly more." Right after this comment, Monica greets Henry passionately, which amazes him, which could indicate that he doesn't believe her capable of deep emotion. In fact, all the earlier descriptions of Monica could be read as machine-like (her "lambent eyes," the fact that she arranges her limbs, the clock and dial that seem almost built into her wrist).

    I think the fact that's it is so difficult to tell if the mother is "real" or not contributes to the complexity of the story's theme about what is "real."

  7. As I mentioned above, I really don't see any evidence that the mother is also artificial. If she had been, I would think she would be programmed to love David also. In addition, she gets pregnant at the end, something not possible for a robot.

  8. So at the end when it reads, "It could lie on the pillow as he went to sleep. Its beauty and softness reminded him of Mummy." What exactly does it mean?

  9. As far as I can tell, it means just that. I don't attach any special significance to it.

    Again, I believe the mother is a real human who has just received a notice that they can have a child. The comment is that future A.I may be able to conceive, but that's still in the future.

    In any relationship it is possible, if not likely, that the passion felt may diminish somewhat, leading to a less enthusiastic welcoming over time. She is overjoyed at receiving the OK to have a child, so she greets him with more enthusiasm than usual.

    1. Pretty sure the comment alludes that future robots will have genitals (so their lonely owners can have sex with them), not that they'll be able to reproduce.

    2. Grainne Gillispie,

      That could very well be. It's been sometime since I last read it now, so I don't remember exactly what the next generation will have.

  10. I am in ninth grade and I have to do an analytical paper on this story. I have to do it in mla format so Fred if you could help me that would be. Fabulous!

  11. Anonymous,

    I don't see how I can help you.

  12. i read through all your comments and going off of monica being synthetic, annother point that was missed is when david sees monica standing in the middle of the room. it was said that "her face was blank; ITS lack of expression scared him." monica is referred to as "IT"

  13. "The "it" refers to her face. Her face was blank--its lack of expression.

    :Just out of curiosity--why are you so hung up on this point?

    1. The guy who need helpOctober 23, 2014 at 12:29 AM

      I need a personal characteristics can u make that ???

    2. I don't understand your question.