Rudyard Kipling Does Scifi: The Secret of the Machines

Secret of Machines

I recently found another SF/F podcast that I’ve been digging – Reading, Short and Deep, by SFFAudio. Each episode (available online or through the Apple Podcasts app) consists of the reading of a short SFF work and then some insightful literary analysis and critique by hosts Eric Rabkin and Jesse Willis.

Thus far they’ve done over a hundred episodes, covering the writings of authors from Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, and Robert E Howard to Lord Dunsay to Lord Byron to Poe to Saki. I love this stuff!

Two names I’ve been surprised to see appearing on the episode list are Jack London and Rudyard Kipling. Of course they’ve written plenty that can fall under the Fantasy heading, but I’ve just never really placed them in that basket. Shame on me for being so rigid in my thinking on genre!

The other day I listened to an episode with an eye-catching title: “The Secret of the Machines by Rudyard Kipling.” Ooo, sounds kinda scifi, which would be an even greater departure from my association with Kipling.

The poem, published in 1911 in A School History of England, reads thus:

We were taken from the ore-bed and the mine,
We were melted in the furnace and the pit—
We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,
We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.
Some water, coal, and oil is all we ask,
And a thousandth of an inch to give us play:
And now, if you will set us to our task,
We will serve you four and twenty hours a day!

We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,
We can print and plough and weave and heat and light,
We can run and race and swim and fly and dive,
We can see and hear and count and read and write!

Would you call a friend from half across the world?
If you’ll let us have his name and town and state,
You shall see and hear your crackling question hurled
Across the arch of heaven while you wait.
Has he answered? Does he need you at his side?
You can start this very evening if you choose,
And take the Western Ocean in the stride
Of seventy thousand horses and some screws!

The boat-express is waiting your command!
You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ’neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

Do you wish to make the mountains bare their head
And lay their new-cut forests at your feet?
Do you want to turn a river in its bed,
Or plant a barren wilderness with wheat?
Shall we pipe aloft and bring you water down
From the never-failing cisterns of the snows,
To work the mills and tramways in your town,
And irrigate your orchards as it flows?

It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake
As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth—except The Gods!

Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
Because, for all our power and weight and size,
We are nothing more than children of your brain!


Angel from the Machine

Eric and Jesse offer three or four incisive interpretations of the poem, and I’ll not go into depth rehashing them, except to say that I was largely unconvinced with one of the first offered up, comparing machines to angels. One of the hosts (I think Eric, but I beg pardon – I’ve not yet listened enough to identify which voice belongs to who) asserts that angels, like machines, are bereft of free will.


I can’t speak to the beliefs of all denominations of Christianity or of the Jewish or Muslim people, and what we know of angels must surely be insignificant compared to that we don’t. That said, the Catholic catechism asserts that angels are indeed endowed with free will:

311 Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. 176 He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it[…]

After all, as the podcast host points out, Lucifer himself was a fallen angel, and he was not the only one. They chose themselves over God.

I can’t rule out this interpretation of the poem because not everyone (and indeed Kipling) may not have believed as we do. But I personally find it flawed in this regard.


AI and Kipling’s Law

It is quite intriguing to imagine that Kipling, as a man interested in and impressed by technology, may have been looking ahead to the future and offering a message of both caution and hope.

As the hosts point out, the poem alludes to machines using other machines, perhaps with intelligence and intent! “Give us dynamite and drills!”

Kipling then lays down his Law of the Machines, three decades before Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth—except The Gods!

Such an eloquent and rich stanza, here, and anyone who has ever messed around with code can see the truth of it. Machines are not built to comprehend a lie, no – they accept and do as they are told, to the letter. They cannot feel and will remorselessly and pitilessly execute your error-ridden script.

And of course when dealing with dangerous machinery, complacency can mean maiming or death. A buzz saw is a wonderful tool and an easy way to lose a finger. Nuclear fusion can power homes and hospitals, but can also extinguish life on a terrifying scale.

Mushroom cloud


Hope or Despair

The last stanza tempers this warning somewhat, telling us that no matter how much we screw things up, normalcy will return.

Perhaps in a post-apocalyptic sort of way, I wonder? Given that we’ve now got enough firepower to blow up the Earth many times over, one can only hope Kipling was right in this and that humanity would get another chance.

Ultimately, though, whether this brings you comfort or not, he’s right – machines (and technology) are neither good nor bad, but the children of our brains. No surprise that God would make Man in His image, and that Man in this way would create even more flawed, imperfect things.

As Gandalf said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

I don’t know whether technology will ultimately corrupt or destroy us, or whether it will do more to advance humanity and bring it nearer to God, but right now I’m grateful for my computers and my phone, and my ability to share this poem with you fine readers.



  1. Thanks for the post, PCBushi; this is one of Kipling’s that I have never read. I think Kipling is the king of the two-fisted writers, the authors who write well in poetry and prose. He may also have had a significant influence on SF/Fantasy, as he was a friend of Lord Dunsany and a friend (and co-author) of H.R.R. Haggard.

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