The Psychophonic Nurse (1928) is probably one of David H. Keller’s best stories in terms of the depth of the ideas he grapples with—the effects of robotics on basic human relationships—and his portrayal of the human interface with technological change. However, a story like this could not be published today because of its casual and unadulterated racism and its male chauvinism, even in an anthology of classic science fiction.
Sensitive readers—those who rely on safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect them from ideas and experiences that challenge more than reassure—will want to avoid literature like this. Which is too bad. Not because these archaic views should be defended or encouraged, but because the story is an excellent reminder of how attitudes we now consider abhorrent were virtually undetectable by intelligent, civilized people like ourselves. And not that far in the past—Keller’s story was published about 88 years ago, still within the span of a contemporary human life.
Aside from its interest as early science fiction, The Psychophonic Nurse can be considered clinical data about the status of relationships between whites and African Americans, and between men and women, in early twentieth century America. Fiction like this should still be examined and pondered, maybe in an anthology entitled Enduring Social Nightmares, Volume One. It shows how far we have come in our collective evolution since the 1920s—which is not very far at all.
It seems—to me at least—that the problem with our cosmetically applied political correctness is that it only superficially conceals the darker aspects of our society beneath a veneer of politeness, evenhandedness and feigned respect. It is a grandiose application of the Whorfian hypothesis: that language structures thought, that the words we say or are allowed to say somehow magically constrain the thoughts and ideas we are capable of having, in this case about enduring and recalcitrant social evil.
But this is a hazardous and naïve approach to the problem, a kind of clinical denial or collectively repressed memory. Social evils like racism and chauvinism, (nativism, xenophobia, sexism, classism, ageism, and other assorted –isms) are lodged in a much deeper cognitive structure than mere language—or anything one might be taught by society. Social evils—a subset of Evil with a capital ‘E’—are genetic, primordial, “original” in the sense of the sin—snake-like as Robert E. Howard implies in much of his fiction.
However, with respect to the production of weird fiction, there is a benefit from the kind of repression of memory and language called for by the politically correct: this material sooner or later will re-enter our individual and collective consciousness through nightmare and works of horror, science fiction and fantasy.
David H. Keller was an older contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, his senior by some 10 years. He published mainly in Amazing Stories but occasionally in Weird Tales as well. Keller was a psychiatrist who turned to writing weird fiction later in life. His stories reflect his occupational background; he is clinically attentive to the thought patterns and dilemmas of his characters. It is illuminating to compare a Keller story like The Psychophonic Nurse to almost anything written by H.P. Lovecraft during the same time period.
Keller’s stories are crowded with people who talk a lot and experience more than one emotion across the length of the narrative. The Psychophonic Nurse contains a husband and wife, a baby, marital discord, inquisitive neighbors, food, employment and household chores. A Lovecraft story is devoid of these commonplaces, and with the exception of a mounting cosmic dread, the typical Lovecraft story is quiet, lonely and studious.
Lovecraft’s racism is overt—see for example his The Horror at Red Hook (1927) and his classic The Call of Cthulhu (1928). His evident misogyny—probably connected with his feelings about his mother—is implied by the nearly complete absence of female characters in his fiction. Lovecraft’s racism and chauvinism seem driven by fear and hatred, objectionable by contemporary standards, but at least honest and understandable. Keller on the other hand merely accepts racial and stereotypical gender roles as part of a status quo he participates in and does not question. His attitude is far more insidious and consequential than Lovecraft’s, because unconscious; his perspective more closely resembles our own.
The setting of The Psychophonic Nurse is an imagined near future, circa 1928, that is slightly more technologically advanced than the author’s own time. The story examines the impact of robotics as applied to child care. A thoughtful husband purchases a “psychophonic nurse” to free up time for his ambitious wife to pursue her career as a business writer. The parents are sophisticated about modern child rearing, having read contemporary books on the subject. They are quite comfortable installing the childcare robot in their household as if it were one more labor saving appliance. The husband explains:
“I had her made to order by the Eastinghouse Electric Company. You see, she’s just a machine nurse, but as she doesn’t eat anything, is on duty twenty-four hours a day, and draws no salary, she’s cheap at the price I paid.”
The psychophonic nurse is a “Black Mammy” model from Eastinghouse Electric Company, bought by the husband because “Then again, you know I had a black mammy and I wanted my child to have one, too.” [Historical note: The Psychophonic Nurse was published about 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the American Civil War.] With the installation of the machine nurse, the wife’s career as a writer soon takes off. She writes books with ominous titles like Woman, the Conqueror and Perfect Harmony between Parent and Child.
Mrs. Teeple had all the time she wanted for her literary work and was making a name for herself in the field of letters. She was showing her husband and friends just what a woman could do, if she had leisure to do it. She felt that in no way was she neglecting her child.
Besides the liberation of women from the drudgery of household chores and childcare, Keller goes on to speculate about applications of robotics to other areas of human endeavor: factory labor, religious practice, even infidelity. He has some fun with this. Keller has been perceived by reviewers as reactionary and anti-feminist—which he is—but in The Psychophonic Nurse, the tone is satirical and affectionate, similar to that of his 1927 story, The Revolt of the Pedestrians. (See also Look Both Ways!). It is difficult to know how seriously readers are to take his assumptions, but they seem animated by an enthusiasm for traditional ethics and morality, as expressed through conventional social roles.
While the wife is busy working, her husband contrives to have quality time with their infant, and begins to doubt the wisdom of having replaced mom with a machine. When a life-threatening disaster is averted near the conclusion of the story, the parents come to their senses and return to a more traditional arrangement of family roles. The psychophonic nurse, loyal, reliable, and competent, is unplugged.
The happy ending will annoy feminists. It reveals Keller’s conservatism and opposition to the progressive impulse. The moral of the story, one of them at least, seems to be that people should know their place, and stay there. Whether one agrees with this sentiment or not, it’s clear that technological innovations continue even now to disrupt social roles and expectations, causing much anxiety and resentment. However problematic, knowing one’s place, and knowing the other’s place, is still a powerful and heartfelt strategy to control fear.