Sunday, September 20, 2020

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958)

I read a few books from the Danny Dunn series by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams when I was the appropriate age, say 9, 10, or 11. They were all right but not that great—not as exciting as Nancy Drew, not as intriguing as Edward Eager, not as thrilling as mystery, science fiction, and horror stories. But a couple of things about this one have stuck with me and finally brought me back. First, the book was an early source of interest for me in computers. They sounded pretty cool. Now it's weird to get the munge of '50s computer technology and pure fantasy. The computer here takes up a significant portion of a room, but Professor Bullfinch has also casually pioneered some kind of voice recognition interface. Remarkable! The second and really the main thing that stuck was the moral object lesson, which is along the lines of, "There's no such thing as a shortcut, so do the work." The precocious Danny Dunn wants to get out of homework by having the computer do it for him, somehow never noticing that he has to learn it all anyway in order to program the computer (most related processes also a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to go along with the voice recognition). This lesson can be generalized in any direction. For example, getting out of having to go to a job every day may be an attractive reason to try becoming a criminal, but most people would pay for that with unusual and severe stress. Danny's basic problem in perception shows up when his friend Joe mentions they have to study two books. "We don't really have to study them," Danny says. "We just have to read them enough to understand what's in them." Joe and Irene, Danny's other friend, don't understand the difference, and of course neither do any of the rest of us. Danny Dunn was intended as a model of the virtues of a questioning and problem-solving mind. It's also interesting to me that Danny's father has died, his mother is a widow and single mother, and they room with the kindly Professor Bullfinch. This midcentury focus on fractured families living together on the margins is curious. See also '60s TV stretching to the horizon: My Three Sons, Andy Griffith, Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, etc., etc. There's also the usual weird problems of gender roles in anything this old. I think by today's YA standards I grew up in somewhat of a paltry era, but what do you do? It was kind of a nostalgic kick going through Homework Machine again. The used copy I found came out after my time, recently enough that blurbs on the cover note how remarkable it is that there was even a world at all before personal computers. It's from a school library. I can't imagine what a kid would make of it now.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (at these prices, wait for the library to reopen)


  1. The violence against non-Cisgender experiences in our era was terrible but in a way the preoccupation w/ fractured families was an early expression of LGBTQ+ identities, the widening gyre of the civil rights movement. You know Andy Griffith had to have a thing going with Don Knotts.

  2. Yes, and also likely Fred MacMurray with his housekeeper Uncle Charley (the great William Demarest). Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that.