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Literature / Robot AL-76 Goes Astray

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First published in Amazing Stories (February 1942 issue), by Isaac Asimov, the magazine would later republish this Science Fiction Short Story in the Fall 1942 Quarterly and April 1956 issues.

During an era when it is illegal for robots to be used on Earth outside of a factory environment, an AL model is lost during shipment. AL-76 is designed to mine on the moon, and has no prior programming for Earth-based activity. This leaves him lost and confused, wandering the hills of Virginia until he meets Randolph Payne, a hobbyist repairman. Randolph calls him "Al" and convinces him to stay here until someone from United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation can come and pick him up.

What actually convinces AL-76 to stay, however, is that he believes that he can build his mining tool from the scrap left over from irreparable appliances. However, the tool he actually builds is a much improved version, able to destroy most of a mountain with only two handheld batteries.

"Robot AL-76 Goes Astray" has been republished several times; My Best Science Fiction Story (1949), The Rest of the Robots (1964), Science Fiction Adventure Classics (Fall 1969 issue), The Monster Makers (1974), Ten Science Fiction Stories (1977), The Complete Robot (1982), Sirius (issue #93, March 1984), and Amazing Science Fiction Anthology: The War Years 1936-1945 (1987).

"Robot AL-76 Goes Astray" contains examples of:

  • Ban on A.I.: When the titular robot is lost in transit, United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation is less concerned about the law against robots on Earth, and rather more concerned with the fact that AL-76 wasn't designed to encounter an Earthlike environment. They're rather more concerned that the AL unit will malfunction due to the unexpected stimulus.
    [Sam Tobe] said: "That robot was created to run a Disinto on the moon. Its positronic brain was equipped for a lunar environment, and only a lunar environment. On Earth it's going to receive seventy-five umptillion sense impressions for which it was never prepared. There's no telling what its reactions will be. No telling!" And he wiped a forehead that had suddenly gone wet, with the back of his hand.
  • Disintegrator Ray: AL-76 creates a Disinto device powerful enough to destroy the top 3/4 of a mountain.
  • The Genie in the Machine: Being programmed for mining on the moon and stuck in Virginia, AL-76 goes a little bit insane (while still following the three Laws of Robotics), and in an attempt to fulfill his programming ("use a laser drill to mine ore"), he tries to build an industrial laser from whatever old stuff Randolph has lying around his shed... and ends up building the world's first fully functional disintegration cannon run by a standard electric torch battery. Unfortunately, shortly before United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation manages to locate AL-76 (a nearby mountain peak suddenly ceasing to exist gives them a clue), Randolph gives the robot an instruction that results in him first destroying his "laser" and then forgetting everything. When the cyberneticists find out, they complain that Randolph is gone and cannot be lynched.
  • Handy Man: Randolph Payne spends his free time in a remote shack, repairing people's appliances. It helps him spend time away from his wife and earns him money that she can't spend.
  • Henpecked Husband: Randolph prefers to spend his time at his remote shack (his "special deluxe doghouse") instead of at home with his wife because they don't get along well.
  • Homemade Inventions: AL-76 puts together a "Disinto", a mining tool, from the junk at Randolph's shack. It is powerful enough to atomize the top two-thirds of a nearby mountain and powered by only two flashlight batteries. Randolph panics and orders him to forget what happened, so nobody knows how he did it.
    "I can build one." [AL-76] looked into Payne's deluxe doghouse and said. "You've got all the material here that I need."
    Randolph Payne surveyed the junk with which his shack was filled: eviscerated radios, a topless refrigerator, rusty automobile engines, a broken-down gas range, several miles of frayed wire, and, taking it all together, fifty tons or thereabouts of the most heterogeneous mass of old metal as ever caused a junkman to sniff disdainfully.
  • In-Series Nickname: The robot in this work is from the AL series, and is therefore nicknamed Al by Randolph Payne, the first human who didn't run away when he saw AL-76.
  • Keep the Reward: Randolph initially convinces AL-76 to stay at his shack because he's convinced that US Robotics will pay thousands of dollars to recover the robot. However, when they arrive, AL-76 had just fired a powerful disintegration tool, and Randolph runs away because he's afraid he will be Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves.
    What he did know was that property had been destroyed by a robot temporarily in his possession. All visions of rewards vanished and were replaced by trembling nightmares of hostile citizenry, shrieking lynch mobs, lawsuits, murder charges, and what Mirandy Payne would say. Mostly what Mirandy Payne would say.
  • MacGyvering: AL-76 builds a mining rig out of scrap, powered by two D-cell batteries. Unfortunately, Randolph, freaked out by it all, tells the robot to destroy the machine and "forget it", and so the design is lost.
  • Mechanical Monster: When AL-76 initially encounters humans, they mostly run away (one tries to shoot him, and then runs away). While AL-76 is confused about it, Randolph Payne is clearly terrified of the large machine and the only thing that relaxes the human is recalling that robots are Three Laws-Compliant.
    Payne looked hurriedly about. It had struck him that the robot spoke in a remarkably mild tone for one so heavily and brutally metallic in appearance. It also struck him that he had heard somewhere that robots were mentally incapable of harming human beings. He relaxed a bit.
  • Miraculous Malfunction: AL-76 manages to create a mountain-destroying mining laser that runs on two D-batteries after being exposed to unexpected stimuli when lost on Earth.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: AL-76 builds a mining laser out of various junk found in Randolph's toolshed. The only named part is a flashlight. When he turns on the laser, he takes out a nearby mountain. Randolph orders AL-76 to destroy the machine and then to forget everything. When United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation finds AL-76, they are outraged — the robot had somehow managed to build a laser strong enough to take out a mountain that was powered by a pair of flashlight batteries, and with AL-76 having followed the order, they can't reconstruct it.
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat: The General Manager of United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation is terrified because one of his robots has gotten lost outside of their control and he doesn't know what will happen to it. He becomes disheveled and sweaty because of his fear.
    And he wiped a forehead that had suddenly gone wet, with the back of his hand.
  • Pull the Thread: Randolph tries to trick AL-76 into believing that the robot's boss ordered him to take care and hide of AL-76 until the robot was needed. Suspicious of the order, he asks Randolph what his boss's name is. Randolph doesn't know, so he evades the question by claiming that the name is too much of a secret to speak aloud. AL-76 is satisfied with this.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: The laws aren't quoted, but the only reason why Randolph doesn't run off is because he remembers something vague about robots never harming a human. When Randolph yells orders at AL-76, it is out of fear, not realizing that the robot was obligated to do whatever he was told.
    [Randolph] didn't expect his orders to do any good; it was only reflex action. What he didn't know was that a robot always obeys a human order except where carrying it out involves danger to another human.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: The Disinto built by AL-76 was only fired once, and not only did it vaporize the target, it also vaporized most of the mountain miles behind the target. All this with only two flashlight batteries to power it.
    AL-76 pointed to the nightmarish junk pile and said, "Watch!" His hands set to work- [...] The Disinto worked, and seventy-five trees, two barns, three cows and the top three quarters of Duckbill Mountain whiffed into rarefied atmosphere. They became, so to speak, one with the snows of yesteryear.