Study and Discussion Questions for Lester Del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" [1938]


Ken Liu's "The Algorithms for Love" [2004]


Del Rey's story, through its presentation of Helen, is an early address to the humanization of robots that we saw through Jenkins in Simak's "The Huddling Place" [1944].  Our conversations about Jenkins led us to consider both whether an artificial intelligence could in fact evolve self-consciousness and human emotions and whether human behaviors might not, like that of AI's,  result from conditioned responses to familiar experiences.  Our readings for today--written almost 70 years apart--both confront similar issues while also provoking some thought about gender representations in SF.  Consider the following questions while reading and reviewing the stories.


"Helen O'Loy"


  1. Since Dave and Phil ultimately reject the twins and both--it seems--fall in love with Helen, it seems reasonable to assume that Helen represents, for these characters and their author, the perfect woman.  What, for this 1938 story, are the specific characteristics of the perfect woman?

  1. How does Lena, the housekeeping robot, direct our attention to the developing themes of the perfect woman and the self-conscious, emotional robot?  What is the impact of Phil's statement, "Lena has sense enough, but she has no emotions, no consciousness of self" (43)?

  2. How do Archy van Styler and his infatuation with the servant girl function in the story?

  3. Finally, how does Phil's notion that, "Maybe all thought is a series of conditioned reflexes" (46) both function within this story and link it to "The Algorithms for Love"?

"The Algorithms for Love"

  1. In computer science, "algorithm" refers to "a predetermined set of instructions for solving a specific problem in a limited number of steps" [Webster's New World Dictionary, 4th edition, 2002].  Since Elena is a designer who writes the code governing the dolls, this definition is likely relevant to Liu's story.  How does the concept of an "algorithm" function in the story's title?  How does this concept inform the statement, "To [Brad] this means that the routines are back in place, that he is talking to the same woman that he has known all these years" (183-184). 

  2. How do the phrases, "I love you" & "I love you, too" (183, 192, & 198) function in the story?

  3. Why does Liu send Brad and Elena to Salem for their weekend when Elena is released from the hospital?  Why does he mention Bridget Bishop, Salem's Official Witch? (187).  Is this somehow a comment on Elena and her work?

  4. How does John Searle's Chinese Room Argument function in the story?

  5. How does the sequence of dolls [from Clever Laura to Witty Kimberly to Aimee and finally to Tara] develop the themes of AI self-consciousness and human understanding?  What are the purposes and who are the audiences for these dolls?

  6. Why does "seeing an inanimate object display intelligent behavior" (186) unnerve the TV interviewers?  How does this effect also develop the story's address to algorithms and their implications for both AI and human understanding?

  7. Finally, why does Elena "want to scream"? (184).  Remember, this thought occurs very near the end of the story's time frame despite the fact that in the plot it appears on the second page.