R.U.R., Cybermen, Mr. Roboto
I’m not certain if it was a case of great minds thinking alike, or just something in the air, but Thursday I woke up with fragments “Mr. Roboto” and “Ironman” playing in my mind’s ear. Which got me to thinking about robots, and my aversion to them as an author.
Part of this is because I just do not want to take the time to learn as much as I feel I need to in order to write them well. Part is because I do not trust robotics and cybernetics. I should. I’ve never had a bad personal experience with robots, just with computers and advanced technology in general (GPS failures in mid-air… Yeaaaahhhhh.) But ever since I was young, robots made me wary.
I grew up reading about R.U.R/ Metropolis, the Three Laws of Robotics, watching the cybermen, The Black Hole, Star Wars, and The Forbidden Planet. Robots were a staple of hard science fiction, and of dystopian sci-fi, going back to 1927 and the movie Metropolis. This was not the first time a robot appeared in moving pictures, but the first that most of us probably think of. The first film robot was 1919, and the first use of the word “robot” was in the play R.U.R., written in 1920. All three are somewhat dystopian, and the robots are not good creations.
Then along came The Black Hole and Max. Max scared younger me, especially his last scene standing among the flames and ruins in the black hole. Shades of Chernobog in Fantasia, which I suspect was deliberate. Even R2D2 and C-3PO couldn’t undo those images. Later on I read the original stories in Azimov’s I, Robot and how he saw the trial-and-error process of the development of the Three laws of Robotics in his world. And also met the cybermen, who are technically cyborgs, not robots, but by the time they became staples in the Doctor Who canon were more mechanical than biologic mentally. We shall not discuss Skynet and Terminator.
You will notice that up until R2D2 appears, there is not a single positive portrayal of a robot. OK, I should amend that with Robbie the Robot in The Forbidden Planet, who provides a critical clue to what the monster really is. My gut reaction to gushing descriptions of cybernetic implants (make brains better! You can think and access the internet! We’ll make you stronger, faster…) and robotics doing all the hard work is, “I read that book. No. No way.”
So what about writing robots? I don’t, again because it is not a topic I enjoy researching. I have read some excellent uses of robots in fiction, either as characters or as tools for characters, good and bad. However, I’ve also seen them used as a crutch. “I’m in a corner! I know, let’s add a killer robot, or better, a robotic army. Yeah,” typity-type, and behold, the robot army appears out of nowhere. For a while in the ’80s-’90s it seemed as if every non-nuclear-dystopia sci-fi book was “evil robot” something. Then they faded. I wonder if part of that was the zeitgeist changed and the sense of “Japanese robots will steal all our jobs after Japan destroys the US economy” disappeared.
They are making a come-back in indie fiction, and in non-mainstream publishing. I think the fascination with the powers and perils of robots and AI is still with us. Robots have not gone the direction people thought they would, even in Japan. “Robots will replace humans” could be done very well in a dystopia of lotus-eaters controlled by a well-intentioned, benevolent despot. And we all know how those end, right Mr. Welles? The question of how humans relate to and deal with technology is a very strong story, and handled well, provokes thought as well as entertaining people.
Robots also reflect their creators, for good or ill. We can project our own development and questions onto them. What does it mean to be human? What separates homo sapiens from “organic machines?” How do machines become human? We know that people grow fond of robots, even (perhaps especially) ones that do not look at all “cute” or “friendly,” and grieve when they fail or are destroyed on the job. How we define ourselves in turn shapes how we define not-human, and fiction is one of the best places to play with that question, showing results both good and evil.