(from Soviet Science Fiction, 1962, translated by Violet L. Dutt)
Urm was bored.
Actually only man and a few animals are capable of boredom as a reaction to a monotonous situation or inner dissatisfaction with oneself, when one loses interest in life. To be bored, there must be something that gets bored — a delicate, perfectly organized nervous system. One has to know how to think or, at any rate, to suffer. Urm had no nervous system in the ordinary sense of the word, and he could not think, still less suffer. He could only perceive, remember and act. And yet he was bored.
Alternately wickedly interesting and desert-dry, this funny little story didn’t really go anywhere, plot-wise. I have a totally unsubstantiated notion that the dull, protocol-is-best, vaguely jingoistic conclusion is a symptom of this story’s Soviet origin, but I could be wrong. In any case, “Spontaneous Reflex” will be memorable for its odd pace and a few brilliant little scenes — like Urm trying to use his 15 built-in sense organs to make sense of a mirror. Urm stands for Universal Robot Machine, although a character blurts out Uliana-Robert-Mama at one point and I’m not sure why (maybe it’s an odd translation of the acronym in the Russian phonetic alphabet).
Did some Googling, but I couldn’t find the version I read anywhere online. Instead, check out this very different translation, wherein Urm is Utm. According to Wikipedia, the Strugatsky brothers wrote together for some 30-plus years, and wrote far more novels and stories together than solo.
I picked up this sharp, pocket-size collection at Port Richmond Books here in Philadelphia the other day. Five bucks, a bit musty and just enough wear to tell me it had been read before. It is, by the way, an amazing and amazingly cluttered bookstore built in an old movie theater. Recommended.