“Nanny” was first published in Startling Stories in Spring 1955. Cited page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 383–397.
Mary Fields is talking to her husband, Tom, about how much Nanny has helped her with their two children. She gets the ready for school, keeps them safe throughout the day, and puts them to bed at night. Nanny does not make dinners, but that task is completed by the automated kitchen. She begins to tell Tom about some strange things that she has seen happening with Nanny, but is interrupted by the kids coming in. It is revealed that Nanny is large sphere-shaped robot. When the children and Nanny leaves, Mary begins to voice her concerns again. She thinks they may need to repair Nanny soon because she is going out at night into the backyard.
That night, Nanny leaves the house and goes to the yard. Outside she sees a neighbor’s Nanny, a large blue robot built by a competing company. They battled, but the blue robot was larger and more than a match for Nanny. In the morning, the Fields are shocked to find Nanny dented and damaged inside the house. They have no idea what caused it and call a repair shop. The repairman advises the Fields to get a new Nanny because the old damaged one will not be the same. Tom realizes at once that the repairman is trying to upsell them a new model and insists on the repair.
At the playground Nanny is with the kids, struggling to remain fully functional with all its damaged parts. Bobby Fields asks intimate questions of Nanny, such as how they are born or what happens to them when they die. Later they compare their Nanny to an orange one playing with some neighbor kids. Bobby and Jean Fields insist that their Nanny is a superior model. Soon the two Nannies start fighting.
Bobby, in tears, reports that Nanny was killed. Tom Fields goes out looking for a new one to purchase, from a different company. The clerk tries to sell Tom the Imperator Deluxe, which has all the new upgrades and will be a match for all other models out there. Tom confronts him on the constant upgrades, but the clerk offers some platitudes about improving quality and the necessity of staying ahead of obsolescence. Tom returns home and introduces the new Nanny to the children.
Meanwhile, another family finds their Nanny destroyed and begins thinking about a new model.
“Nanny” is a significant step forward in Dick’s critiques of technology, consumerism, and the suburban family. Dick explores the dangers of automation in earlier tales, but not until “Nanny” was he able to nail down with precision the impact of automation on people’s abilities. Tom and Mary Fields are biological parents of Bobby and Jean, but they perform none of the duties of parents, except paying the bills. The children are closer to Nanny than to their parents. They serious philosophical questions that all kids ask are directed toward Nanny, not their parents. The house is largely automated, meals are prepared for them in the kitchen, Nanny gets the kids ready for school and brings them home at the end of the day. The Nanny is also responsible for discipline. The reader suspects that Mary and Tom could not perform these duties. When Nanny is destroyed, they literally have no choice but to purchase another automated parent. This is not just keeping up with the neighbors, it is evidence of the atrophy of parental ability. We can list other talents that technology has atrophied such as spelling, arithmetic, or navigating roads.
This connects the Dick’s developing critique of consumerism. The critique in “Nanny” runs two ways. First, we see the planned obsolescence pre-planned by the corporations designing Nannies. By programming them to be belligerent toward each other, and they provided upgraded models that can supposedly defend themselves from these attacks while defending the children, parents are forced to purchase new Nannies at an alarming rate. Even Tom’s awareness of what is happening is not enough to change his basic consumer behavior. This can be accounted for by corporate machinations. More devastating is the attitude of the children toward Nanny. Nanny has replaced their parents at both a physical and intellectual/moral level. They love Nanny. They ask it the deep and profound questions of life. “Are Nannies born? Were there always Nannies? Maybe there was a time before there were Nannies. I wonder what the world was like in the days before Nannies lived.” (391) They see Nanny as their real parents. Their biological parents are familiar strangers.
The parental aloofness that horrified Dick and is on display, as well as the rampant consumerism, can both be explained as byproducts of the suburban setting. Both the Fields and their children are obsessed with how the neighbors see them. They get their value from keeping up with them. This tendency toward conspicuous consumption is easily hacked by the corporations building, repairing, and replacing Nannies. Dick believed that the robotic Nanny was a mere extension of the parenting he saw among middle class and wealthy suburbanites. If you are willing to hire nannies to raise your children, robots are not that much of an extension. After all, the same affluent individuals made the transition from having servants wash their clothes to washing machines. One point that I will develop as this blog goes on is that Dick is a conservative in regards to family life. But he was not a stupid conservative. He did not blindly look to the past. He knew that the family was under deep strains from external forces. This strain made the family easily susceptible to exploitation by corporate power.
Wikipedia entry for “Nanny.”
Dependency on technology undermining spelling skills.
*Note: I do not think this is necessarily bad. My skills at hunting animals is also atrophied by technology. If, however, technological dependence has other costs, such as damaging families, eliminating our autonomy, or destroying a knowledge base permanently it should be questioned and resisted. As long as we have dictionaries, I am not sure declining average spelling skills is a bad thing.