‘He will attempt to re-program you, you know,’ says Compton. ‘Soon you’ll be pressured to write a grant with him. He will induct you into the dark arts of grant-writing. He’ll be doing it for himself, and the department’s sake, but he’ll also think he’s doing you a favour. Which he is, if you want grants.’
‘And as a young person, you should do,’ says Walter. ‘That’s the way the Humanities are going to go, grants and funding will matter more and more over the next few decades. Glad I’ll be retiring before all that comes. So if you can stand it, let him teach you.’
‘I get the impression Ren isn’t the type,’ says Compton. ‘You’re lucky you had that postdoc position so you could get those papers published, I think if you hadn’t the department would have hired someone with a more modern attitude.’
‘More compliant. More timid. A team worker, i.e. do what the Head tells you. Your sarcastic attitude has been noticed. They don’t like academics having their own personalities any more. I’ve found this out myself. Why do you think Derek’s never been promoted?’
Compton lowers his voice so he can’t be heard, not that there is much danger of this, as Beresford and Hedley are starting to argue more loudly again.
‘He may be a left-wing arsehole,’ says Compton, looking carefully at Derek, ‘but that’s not why. It’s because he’s too fond of his status as an iconoclast.’
‘I thought it was because he never publishes?’
‘Well, that too. But he’d still have trouble getting promoted, because he says, shall we say, unhelpful things, especially to the higher-ups.’
Compton glances at Derek again. ‘Let’s just say he considers them sell-outs. Traitors to the cause.’
‘He’s got a point.’
‘Indeed. Robot wanted him to apply for a grant recently, but he just said no. Didn’t go down too well.’
‘You never just say an outright “No” when the Head asks you something like that,’ says Walter. ‘If you don’t want to do it you’ve got to be more subtle than that.’
‘What would you say?’
‘You’d say something like, I’ve love to, but I have X, Y and Z on my plate at the moment. Or you suggest a future project instead when you have more time. You’ve got to find something that makes it reasonable of you to say no. Or gives the appearance of being reasonable.’
‘Robot is pushing things back again to the old style of department where there was a big Professor who rules the roost and he just tells everyone what to do, based on whatever he thinks is right,’ says Compton.
‘Or in his case, whatever the higher-ups approve of,’ says Walter. ‘All he cares about is looking good on the metrics so he can get promoted to senior management.’
‘Why would anyone want to go into senior management?’ says Ren, who’s still young and naive enough to be enjoying his research.
‘As you get older some people lose interest in their research, and money becomes more important,’ says Compton. ‘Senior management is where the really big salaries are. And the bigger your final salary, the bigger your pension. You no longer have to slave away at your research, or waste your time taking seminars full of undergraduate dimwits. You get to make the decisions, and you’re pretty insulated from their consequences. You swan about with the great and the good at fancy restaurants. And you get a secretary who does a lot of the drudge work for you.’
‘It won’t ever happen for Grant, though,’ says Walter. ‘He’s uncomfortable to be around. Being a bastard is no impediment, not that he’s really that much of a bastard compared to some of that lot, but you’ve got to have a bit of charm, which he doesn’t.’
‘Yes, he’s about as much fun as flat lemonade,’ agrees Ren. ‘The permanent frown, the weary impatience with human frailty… I can see why the higher-ups might want him running a department, but you wouldn’t want to have to deal with him all the time yourself.’
‘He’s valuable to them where he is, doing what he’s good at,’ says Compton. ‘So although he doesn’t realise it, he’s never going to get to that level.’
‘But how does he manage to make any friends? How does he get on with people in his field, and on grant panels?’
‘You haven’t met those people. A lot of them are like him,’ says Walter.
‘They’re not exactly his friends,’ says Compton. ‘More like fellow droids with the same batch number, who have mutual interests.’
‘He’s not really that bad when you get to know him,’ says Walter, who sees the good in everyone.
Robot’s colleagues have noticed that recently he’s started showing an interest in human emotion. At least, an interest in simulating it. One of the most frightening things anyone’s ever seen is Robot’s attempt to replicate the human smile. It’s an awful thing to witness, which leaves anyone unfortunate enough to be in the firing line feeling like they’ve seen things humans aren’t supposed to see. A glimpse through a crack in the tent into the workings of the human mind, enough to give them the sense of how deflatingly gimcrack the whole thing is.
You can see it happening in slow motion. First there’s the opportunity for a smile which Grant fails to immediately register. Seconds pass. Then the realisation dawns on him that this is when he should be smiling. Maybe the worst part is that you can almost see the old-style Soviet-era tape decks in his head shifting around as a new spool is loaded, and cranes are brought into position ready for cranking up the mouth corners.
Then it comes. The ersatz, non-Duchenne smile. For most observers this is the worst part. The corners of the mouth go up, but it’s like a corpse having its features adjusted by the undertaker, an impression which is highlighted by the red lines Robot has coming down on both sides of his mouth to the bottom of his face, which stand out conspicuously against the almost albino whiteness of the rest of his skin, making it look like he has the hinged mouth of a venquilitrist’s dummy.
As the corners of his mouth are hauled upwards, the rest of his face stays exactly the same. Robot doesn’t understand that you smile with your orbicularis oculi – the eyelid – muscle as much as with your zygomatic major muscle. Some swear that his eyes become even angrier as his mouth is tormented into position, as though the eyes are registering his real feelings at the imposture he is being forced to adopt in order to deal with these erratic and untrustworthy flesh-based creatures. Robot is perhaps guided by knowing that meat-machine detection systems are often jury-rigged and are thus manipulable – the robin red breast, for instance, can be fooled into attacking a piece of red cloth if it’s on its territory. But Robot leaves his red cloth in place for the wrong amount of time, and then the cranes let go too quickly.
‘Can we kindly not talk about Robot’s smile when we’re eating, please?’ says Bill.