This is a somewhat bleak short story that I read about five or six years ago, in a collection of stories all by the same author that, based on printing style and binding was probably printed between 1950 and 1980.

The story was about a society where everyone lived underground (or possibly just in sealed environments without exposure to sunlight). Everywhere in this society were various robots, which were constantly present among the people in the society, but which were almost never mentioned by or acknowledged by anyone, as this was considered impolite. From time to time, and for reasons that nobody could really figure out, one of the robots would reach out and kill someone near it.

The protagonist of the story was keenly interested in the reasoning behind the robots' choices of who to kill, and the story is about his efforts to work out that reasoning. He goes through various theories, all of which are disproven over time, and eventually decides that the robots don't like the complacency exhibited by the rest of society.

He starts to explore old, unused parts of the underground complex, finding tunnels that go far from everyplace anyone uses. Eventually, after years of exploration and having reached a very far tunnel, he encounters a lone robot. I want to say that it's sitting at an exit from the complex, but I'm not sure -- it may have just been sitting in the middle of a tunnel. The man, triumphant, approaches the robot to say that he's figured it out and passed their test.

At that point, the robot kills him.

I'm pretty sure that the author was male. I'm also pretty sure that the author wasn't a big name in sci-fi but not exactly obscure, either.

EDIT: In response to DavidW's (funny!) comment, I should point out that I don't believe this was intended as a dark comedy. My interpretation was that the robots were a metaphor for death in our everyday lives, i.e. the possibility of suddenly dying (e.g. via heart attack or traffic accident) is always there, but, even though death is inevitable, it's a semi-taboo subject. Also that it was implied that the robots have no plan and that the protagonist's efforts to discover one were a pointless project (which is why I called the story "bleak").

EDIT: I've been trying to remember more about this, and I believe that it might have been a sci-fi story in a collection that was NOT primarily sci-fi. That might mean that the author is a more recognized name in the horror genre than in science fiction.

I think that the first story in the collection (or at least one of the first few stories) ended with the narrator being tied up in a dark, abandoned building full of hungry rats. The narrator was a newly-released convict who was trying to find out where one of his cellmates (who died in prison) had hidden the money from a successful robbery, but he was double-crossed by the cellmate's ex-wife. (I'm not really interested in this story, but I'm about 90% sure it was in the same collection.)

  • 11
    The first rule of Killer Robot Club...
    – DavidW
    Oct 29, 2019 at 2:24
  • 1
    Sounds like a story I would enjoy reading. Oct 30, 2019 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


I think I may have figured this out: The Learning Maze by Robert Bloch.

There's not much about this story online, and I don't have a copy handy, but I did find a couple of references that are a close match. One site has a quote from the story that sounds familiar:

Jon’s orientation came from the screens. As he grew older, he became aware of the world beyond—the real world outside the Learning Maze. The world which had once existed without mazes of any sort and in which human beings had lived all their lives with only the crudest kind of servo-mechanisms to help them. History—or theirstory, as it was now correctly called—dealt with the quaint quality of this primitive culture in which the biological parents undertook the education of their offspring, assisted by crude instructional institutions.

The combined effects of emotional conflict and ignorance had their inevitable effect: the world had been plunged into endless warfare in which both the inhabitants and their natural environment were almost totally destroyed.

Then, and only then, the Learning Maze concept came to the rescue. Once a mere toy for the study of animal behavior in old-fashioned “laboratories,” then a simple experimental device developed for the psychological conditioning of children in a few “universities,” the Learning Maze principle had been expanded to bring true sanity and civilization to mankind.

Another site mentions the allegorical nature of the story and has a plot summary:

Similarly, "Learning Maze" catalogs man's foibles in a thinly veiled allegory. Humanity has realized that all of our problems come from the inefficient and ineffective relationships formed between child and parents and so children are raised entirely by machines with logic and ration as their guides. The machines understand and promote emotion, seeking to bring out the very best qualities of their wards as they interact in a physical labyrinth. Children are taught by examples on televisions and practice their lessons until the machines allow them to advance to another segment of the labyrinth or, alternatively, decide that the child is not meeting the conditions for moving and is subsequently dropped through a hole in the floor to never be heard from again. As the children mature, they are allowed to interact with the opposite sex and practice domesticity, apparently in preparation for their release from the labyrinth. But as the main character progresses, he becomes stymied near the end of the labyrinth as he watches groups of other inhabitants performing bizarre tasks which make no sense to him. To the reader it is obvious that these are representations of the kind of work that people participate in as adults but Bloch reduces them to their most absurd, hinting at the futility and unhappiness that underlies most of the workaday world. Finally Jon approaches the exit from the labyrinth but is asked to explain his discoveries in order to escape, but though he succeeds, he finds that his escape isn't everything he hoped. The climax to the story is a sharp denunciation of the kind of life that we accept as normal in the Western world.

The part about being dropped through holes is definitely spot on. It may have been the only way that the machines ever removed anyone. I got the strong impression that anyone dropped into a hole was killed afterward, but perhaps this is never actually made explicit.

I probably read it in the anthology Cold Chills, which rings a bell as a title.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.