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February 2002
 
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The Last Revolution by Lord Dunsany (1951)

Lord Dunsany's fantasies have been hugely influential, but his one sf novel is almost forgotten. By 1951 the menace of autonomous machines was an old theme indeed. It seemed fresh to Dunsany, though, and he developed it as a mixture of his own favorite clubland-raconteur mode (as in the Jorkens stories) and Wellsian scientific romance.

His narrator duly overhears a remark in the club: "Good morning, Pender. I hear you have made a Frankenstein." Intrigued, he pursues the inventor, and shortly finds himself playing chess with a sinister, crablike robot which can walk around but has to be transported in a wheelbarrow to avoid frightening Pender's Aunt Mary. The chessgame grows chilly as our hero realizes he's battling an intelligence superior to his own. . . .

Pender's pride in his creation blinds him to what the narrator sees: that the crab-thing is deeply jealous of the attention Pender pays to his fiancée, and that it may be unwise to set the machine manufacturing more of its kind. The Last Revolution, of robots against their hubristic makers, is foreshadowed.

But Dunsany keeps everything very parochially English. His characters end up besieged by hostile crab-mechanisms in a cottage among Thames-side marshes. The police are helpless. Swayed by mysterious robotic influence, even cars and motor-cycles turn against humanity. One tiny factor, though, is on our side. Just as Earthly bacteria caused the downfall of Wells's Martians, the old fool who's been futilely throwing water over the prowling robots is vindicated when they succumb to . . . rust. It has a quirky, period charm.

—David Langford

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