“Helen O’Loy” by Lester Del Rey

This is Del Rey’s second published story, from 1938 at the age of 23. Anyone who thinks SF short fiction is a young person’s game now should look at some of these classics, and we’re still a few years before 21-year old Asimov writing Nightfall, considered by many the greatest SF short story ever. Helen O’Loy has been anthologized to death, it has a certain nostalgia factor even now with it’s tale of unrequited love between a man and his robot maid.

The idea of mechanical people goes back a long time, and in early science fiction, maybe most famously Asimov’s Robot stories, the robots are essentially human analogs, even if they were designed with specific tasks, like housekeeping, in mind. At the time of this story it must have seemed inevitable given the pace of technological change that living humans would be sharing the planet with mechanized people that were indistinguishable from the real thing within their own lifetimes. For this story the robots are already generally available, such that young single guys can acquire them, and hackable enough that they are able to tinker with them. Whoever is manufacturing them has already done the hard part and made them look completely human.

Dave is a robot repair mechanic and in tinkering with his new model he inadvertently makes her sentient, such that she absorbs human emotions from tv shows and falls in love with him. He resists for a long time, runs away, turns to drinking etc, but ultimately realizes he’s lying to himself and they get married. A modern interpretation would find some subtext there that I’m sure Del Rey wasn’t considering, but that’s ok.

The nostalgia factor may come from this being a compelling combination of a love story and a robot story. Helen sounds and acts human, which maybe makes her more sympathetic than the robots in some of Asimov’s earlier stories. Del Rey shows some definite storytelling skill here, I can’t say that he ever wrote anything else in his prolific career that equaled its popularity, his greatest contributions to the field were in publishing, editing and criticism.

The 2014 Retro Hugos gave this story second place, voted on by the members of that year’s Worldcon, held in London, in favor of the sophomore effort of Arthur C. Clarke, a British writer, published in Amateur Science Stories, a British magazine, and only ever anthologized in a collection of his complete short fiction. So much for the Retro Hugos.

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