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Pohl’s Question

“The Tunnel Under the World”, by famous writer Frederik Pohl, was published in 1955. During this time Pohl’s world was very different from ours. The Cold War was escalating and the possibility of nuclear warfare was closer than ever (Cold War). People around the world thought that the end of humanity was near. Furthermore, it was during this time that the technological marvel of the computer had made its way into commercial use. In 1952, the potential power of the computer was demonstrated when the UNIVAC 1 predicted the result of the presidential election (UNIVAC I). In this short story, Pohl asks the question of what would happen if computers were so advanced that they would be able to replicate humanity without its physical faults and limits. In the Tunnel Under the World, Frederik Pohl utilizes scenarios where humanoid androids replicating human consciousness show instances of human-like weaknesses and emotions to challenge the meaning of humanity in our minds.

On its surface, the short story is a commentary on advertising and the inhumane ways of the capitalist world. Guy Burckhardt, the main character, lives in Tylerton with his wife. He has a house and he has a job at an office. On June 15th he wakes up from a dream where the chemical factory near his hometown blows up and everybody in the town dies. He then proceeds with his daily routine and goes into town to see everywhere with aggressive unusual advertisements. When he returns from work some electrical malfunction results in power going out in his whole house. He goes into his basement and as he is fixing his fuse, he falls asleep. Once he wakes up, he sees on the TV that the day is still June 15th. This sparks suspicion in him. Then with another character, Swanson, they reveal a scheme put in motion by an advertisement company. They learn that the explosion in Guy’s dreams was true and the advertising company converted their remains into androids operated by computers. The company’s goals were to test their advertising strategies on the androids.

The story contains multiple instances where Guy is a typical American. His morning starts with a shower and her wife, Mary, calls him down for breakfast, and they have a chat. Then Guy takes off for work. The reader does not suspect a thing when it comes to Guy’s humanity. In fact, Pohl has deliberately placed these two scenes, and especially the first one at the start, to tell us that Guy lives a normal life. This illusion continues throughout the story and even the same setting repeats later.

One other detail that Pohl places in his paragraphs are the use of certain sensations and emotions for Guy and other characters. In doing so Pohl aims to emphasize how emotions and feelings are part of what makes us human. One example is when a truck advertising a freezer is so loud in the middle of the night that it causes Guy to get angry and call the police (Pohl ch. 2 para. 2). He shows his feeling of embarrassment when a beautiful representative from the freezer company comes to apologize to Guy for the disturbance (Pohl ch. 2 para. 3). After the talk with the representative, Guy buys the freezer and he once again shows emotion by worrying about what to tell his wife about it (Pohl ch. 2 para. 5). Later in the story, once he notices that the day is repeating, he has a sense of curiosity and confusion (Pohl ch. 3 para. 1). The peculiar thing is that in most cases, Pohl only implies the existence of Guy’s emotions. There is no moment where Pohl writes that Guy is happy, sad, or excited. We can understand his emotions only through context.

However, not everything is hidden in the context. Pohl spends some effort to explicitly show Guy’s human weaknesses. Pohl shows Guy eating breakfast at his house (Pohl ch. 3 para. 2) and eating a filet mignon steak with the representative from the fridge company (Pohl ch. 2 para. 3). This shows that he gets hungry. Guy also sleeps multiple times during the story showing that he can’t function at all times. Even more, Guy cuts his hand and sucks his bleeding thumb (Pohl ch. 2 para. 6). After all, he can bleed. Then he feels dizzy either because of his bleeding or from not recognizing his own cellar (Pohl ch. 2 para. 6). I think Pohl is deliberately showing Guy’s weakness as, like emotions, they too are criteria for humanity.

To this point, nothing Pohl has given us is raising suspicion as to whether Guy is human or not. Unless you have incredible foresight, you would think that this was a commentary only about the advertisement industry of the 1950s. Nonetheless, we get a slight foreshadowing when Guy and Swanson walk through the old factory. The narrator says this about the former factory workers “what were the automatons that once had run the factory, if not corpses? The machines were controlled by computers that were really not computers at all, but the electronic analogues of living brains. And if they were turned off, were they not dead? For each had once been a human mind” (Pohl ch. 4 para. 2). This is the part that summarizes the meaning of this short story. Pohl does not try to find an answer to these questions. Instead, these questions are directed to the readers. Once the story ends, Pohl wants the reader to go back to these questions and think about them.

The big revelation comes shortly after. Guy figures out that in reality, they were robots. Guy explains to Swanson “You know how a doctor tests something like penicillin? He sets up a series of little colonies of germs on gelatine disks and he tries the stuff on one after another, changing it a little each time. Well, that’s us—we’re the germs…” (Pohl ch. 4 para. 4). Then he explains how “it’s even more efficient” because “They don’t have to test more than one colony, because they can use it over and over again” (Pohl ch. 4 para. 4). As a result of learning this, Guy and Swanson are shocked -another display of human emotion.

The comparison between humans and colonies of germ in the context of medical experiments raises a question of ethics. Can these dead people in robot form be used to conduct experiments like lab rats? Are they human enough to even consider ethical problems? Why did we even assume that the characters were human in the first place? Admittedly, it would be logical to make this assumption in the 1950s but today when we have consumed so much content regarding androids and artificial intelligence, we still continue to make this assumption. Will we continue to make this assumption in the future as we get closer and closer to achieve the technology to make the concept of this story a reality? As Pohl says, if the electrical signals of a human brain can be impressed onto a computer to an extent where they function the same, there would be no difference. It would be even better in a metal shell as it would not have the limitations of a human body. In conclusion, this short story by Pohl is more than a commentary on advertising. Its purpose is to challenge the very notion of humanity. I think it accomplishes its goal to the fullest and makes us wonder what exactly we all are.






Works Cited

Featured Image Source:

Google Images, Creative Commons license.

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