13

I can't remember a great deal of this story, originally I read it in the mid 1970's…

So the main elements are:

  1. self-replicating "silver boxes"
  2. they escape from the inventor
  3. they consume metal etc
  4. from the inventors attempts to stop them we learn
    • subsequent generations are smaller and more complex
    • possibly they eat the Eiffel Tower (or that may be mind-pollution from the GI Joe movie franchise)
  5. the end of the story is left to your imagination… but seems to imply a grey goo finale.
  6. written before the 1980's
13

The Reproductive System (Mechasm in the Ace Books edition), a 1968 novel by John T. Sladek (rhymes with haddock).

The self-replicating machines are produced by the Wompler Toy Corporation:

Ignoring the frantic waving of the jar under his nose, Moley said, "Now, why don't we build a machine that can reproduce itself? I was reading about an idea like that in Life, just the other day. A self-reproducing machine—sure sounds easy enough, don't it?"

The machines are small gray boxes (depicted on this cover):

It was an array of gray metal boxes, each about the size of a cigarette package, stacked loosely together in a cube about two feet high. When the toggle switch, prominent on the top of any one box was thrown, it sent out a tuned starting signal to the rest; they were switched off in the same way.

As soon as each box was activated, it began to roll about on the table on its little casters, avoiding collision with its fellows When all the boxes were moving, they resembled a complicated Brownian movement on the dark surface of the table, as they explored every inch of it.

Kurt and Karl placed bits and scraps of metal on the table. The smaller bits were at once devoured by individual boxes, but the larger bars attracted the entire brood. The gray packages, now the size of king-size cigarette cases, swarmed over them like ants, gouging away with tiny cutters and torches—and growing fatter.

The machines get loose:

"Are you trying to tell me," asked Ickers, "that in only a few days these invisible bugs have piled up enough junk to cover twenty thousand square miles? And we can't stop this?"

"I'm afraid that is correct," said Smilax, "though rather pessimistic. They have worked underground for over two weeks, preparing for this takeover. Moreover, they have only fenced, or enclosed rather than covered the area, and I believe it to be only about 17,213 square miles. That you have had no success thus far in stopping it is evident," he added, with his eyes downcast. "That is why you have sent for me. I do foresee one way of stopping the Reproductive System—though you may find my way repugnant."

[. . . .]

Smilax lighted a display map. "The System seems to have three centers of growth, at the moment, and it is fencing off and surrounding the area between them. They are at the lab at Millford, Utah; Altoona, Nevada; and Las Vegas. The judicious detonation of three thermonuclear devices of the order of 150 megatons each would, I feel confident, completely neutralize the System at these points. The remainder would be a simple matter of—I believe the expression is 'mopping up'—using smaller thermonuclear devices. I know what question you are going to raise in advance, so let me say I estimate the total number of civilian casualties at no more than a million."

  • 2
    The Eiffel Tower does feature, but it seems to have been propelled into space "‘In Paris, the government explained in part the recent ascent into space of the Eiffel Tower. The Space Ministry admitted plotting such an ascent, but claimed it was only a “theoretical problem for our computers”. They were at a loss to explain how the plan was put into action, but hinted mysteriously at some connection with the collapse of the American Embassy building." – Valorum Jul 23 '16 at 23:49
  • '81 is pretty close to the 1970s. We shall have to wait for the OP to come back to us. I'm reasonably sure mine is the one they're looking for, but largely because mine is a short story whereas yours is a full-length novel. – Valorum Jul 23 '16 at 23:57
  • The fact that they called it a "story" leads me to the conclusion that it's more likely to be a short story. – Valorum Jul 24 '16 at 0:08
  • 4
    @user14111 - thanks you nailed it — just purchased an iBooks version of the John Sladek SF Gate Omnibus. It all came back as I started reading the first few pages :D – Craig Jul 24 '16 at 0:41
8

Could this be "The Microbotic Revolution" by Ian Stewart? It was originally published in Omni Magazine in 1981.

The ending, featuring the Eiffel tower collapsing. is especially memorable...

Suppose one of the nth-generation OGREs misread its own program and built its offspring out of gold, or platinum, or stainless steel? Or suppose one learned to copy anything. When the rust killed off the plague, it would leave a few members of a rust-resistant strain.
It would take time for their numbers to build up again, especially if they required scarce materials or were trapped in an unsuitable environment, like an overcoat pocket, for instance. There could be tiny reservoirs of infection remaining, ready to flare up when the conditions became right. And an omnivorous OGRE. That would be a truly fearful device. I'm probably worrying needlessly.
If only Oliver hadn't gone to Paris, the idea would never have entered my head. You see. there was a report on television this evening.
The Eiffel Tower just fell down.
The Erench authorities have attributed it to metal fatigue.
I hope they're right.

  • 1
    Thanks @Valorum — I did have an extensive Omni collection so I probably read this one as well… which might account for the Eiffel Tower crossover. – Craig Jul 24 '16 at 0:43
  • @cppl - Interesting. Glad you found your story :-) – Valorum Jul 24 '16 at 0:45

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