By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Marionettes, Inc.’ is a 1949 short story by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). The story was reprinted in Bradbury’s 1952 collection The Illustrated Man. It concerns a company which can manufacture lifelike plastic doubles of people; these ‘marionettes’ can then stand in for the person they resemble while the real person is elsewhere.
In this clever tale, Ray Bradbury combines the uncanny idea of the doll that can come to life, the encroachment of the technological onto the human, and the relationship between capitalism and technological advancement.
‘Marionettes, Inc.’: plot summary
The plot of ‘Marionettes, Inc.’ can be summarised fairly briefly. Two friends, men named Braling and Smith, are talking. Both wish to escape their wives for a short while, Braling because his wife hates him, and Smith because his wife smothers him with too much love.
Braling confides to Smith that he has purchased a plastic double of himself from a new company named Marionettes, Inc., which can manufacture a lifelike double of someone. This double or ‘marionette’ can then stand in for the person while the real person is free to go elsewhere without anyone being any the wiser.
Braling tells his friend that his marionette is at home with his wife, who believes her husband is by her side rather than some copy of him. He is going to have ‘Braling Two’ keep his wife company while the real Braling sneaks off to Rio for a holiday away from his wife.
When Smith meets Braling’s marionette double, he is so impressed he says he will pay to have his own marionette made. Braling gives him the company’s card, which warns potential customers to keep quiet about the company, since it has not been legally approved yet and using a marionette is still technically a crime.
When Smith gets home to his wife, Nettie, he sees her sleeping and recalls how much she loves him. He almost has second thoughts about spending their money on a marionette, but decides to do so in the end.
However, when he checks their money, he realises that ten thousand dollars are missing. When he shakes his wife to ask her about the missing money, he hears a clicking in his wife’s chest and realises that Nettie has replaced herself in their bed with a marionette of herself.
Meanwhile, Braling is having trouble with his double, Braling Two, who objects to being kept in a toolbox in the cellar when the real Braling is home. What’s more, he announces that he thinks he has fallen in love with Braling’s wife. He decides that he would prefer to go to Rio, and that he’d like to take Braling’s wife. There is a struggle, with Braling trying to phone Marionettes, Inc. so they can collect Braling Two, and Braling Two trying to push Braling into the cellar.
The story ends ambiguously, with Braling’s wife in bed, being kissed by ‘someone’ next to her. Bradbury doesn’t tell us whether this ‘someone’ is Braling, or his marionette, Braling Two.
‘Marionettes, Inc.’: analysis
As I said before offering this plot summary, ‘Marionettes, Inc.’ combines the uncanny idea of dolls coming to life, and the relationship between capitalism and technological advancement. But most of all, we glimpse that important theme which is seen again and again in Bradbury’s work: the fear that certain technological advancements will actually be detrimental to humanity on various levels.
I use the term ‘humanity’ here in both senses: that is, both ‘humankind’ (or ‘mankind’, if you will) and ‘human empathy, kindness, mercy, compassion, and so on’. Both Braling and Smith purchase (or in Smith’s case, wish to purchase) marionettes for dishonest ends.
In both cases, their plans to use their marionettes to escape their wives go awry: Braling’s because his double rebels against his inhumane treatment at his owner’s hands, and Smith’s because he realises his wife (who Bradbury calls ‘Nettie’ to reinforce the idea of her ‘netting’ or trapping him within a marriage which has, if anything, too much love – or so he believes) has already had the same idea and is presumably being unfaithful with another man.
Braling buys the marionette of himself in order to escape his wife and dupe her with a false copy of himself while he is away, but this plan proves not to be as convenient as he’d expected, because Marionettes, Inc. make their robot doubles too well, giving them all of the human properties that Braling himself possesses, including a sensitivity to discomfort and a desire to go to Rio. (Yes, among other things, Ray Bradbury anticipates the TV series of Westworld in his depiction of robotic doubles which gain a level of feeling which is indistinguishable from a real human’s emotions.)
Indeed, Braling treats his duplicate with a less than humane regard for the marionette’s welfare, apparently believing that it is not really ‘human’ at all. In a sense, of course, he’s right, although when Braling Two protests against being put into a toolbox in the cellar, Braling isn’t exactly prepared to consider how his artificial other self really feels. (We might even say he views the doll not unlike the slave-owner regarding his slave as less than human: a reminder that the word ‘robot’ is from the Slavic for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.)
So this is no mere tale about the dangers of ‘evil technology’. Indeed, one leaves off reading ‘Marionettes, Inc.’ feeling that Braling Two will be a considerably better husband than his namesake: after all, he at least appears to love Mrs Braling and wants to take her to Rio with him, rather than go there to escape from her. He even appears to be more human than Mr Braling himself, because he’s more capable of feeling things.
But here I’m assuming that that final ‘someone’ does refer to Braling Two, who has been victorious over his human overlord. Bradbury does, of course, keep open the other possibility: that the status quo has been restored and Braling Two is back in his box (just like a traditional marionette).
The motto or slogan of ‘Marionettes, Inc.’ is witty: ‘No Strings Attached’. This recalls, of course, the original marionettes, which were dolls or puppets operated off-stage by a human who would control the doll’s movement with strings. In this story, Bradbury invites us to ask: who pulls the strings when it comes to our own lives? Are we in charge of technology, or does technology control us?
In an age of smartphones, microchips, facial recognition technology, robotics, posthumanism, and a whole host of other technological developments, this question is becoming more and more relevant.