For a Breath I Tarry
"For a Breath I Tarry" is a highly regarded 1966 post-apocalyptic novelette by Roger Zelazny. Taking place long after the self-extinction of Man, it recounts the tale of Frost, a sentient machine ("...a silver-blue box, 40x40x40 feet,... featured in whatever manner he chose.") Though Man has disappeared, his robotic creations (and their creations in turn) continue to function.
For ten thousand years Frost sat at the North Pole of the Earth, aware of every snowflake that fell. He monitored and directed the activities of thousands of reconstruction and maintenance machines. He knew half the Earth, as gear knows gear, as electricity knows its conductor, as a vacuum knows its limits.
At the South Pole, the Beta-Machine did the same for the southern hemisphere.
Along the way, the story explores the differences between Man and Machine, the former experiencing the world qualitatively, while the latter do so quantitatively. "A machine is a Man turned inside-out, because it can describe all the details of a process, which a Man cannot, but it cannot experience that process itself as a Man can." This is illustrated by a conversation Frost has with another machine named Mordel.
"Regard this piece of ice, mighty Frost. You can tell me its composition, dimensions, weight, temperature. A Man could not look at it and do that. A Man could make tools which would tell Him these things, but He still would not know measurement as you know it. What He would know of it, though, is a thing that you cannot know."
"What is that?"
"That it is cold."
Driving the plot and setting its tone are allusions to other literature, most specifically the first chapter of the Book of Job, both in situation and language, as verses are both quoted directly and paraphrased. Additionally, echoes of the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis appear. Finally, Frost and Mordel enter into a Faustian bargain, with, however, better results than in the original.
The novelette has appeared in collections of Zelazny's works and in anthologies.
- "For a Breath I Tarry"
- "Alternate Source"