I’m fascinated by robot stories. I love them, always have, since I read Harry Harrison’s The Velvet Glove . I can’t be sure, but I think I read that even before Asimov’s I, Robot . (That said, I definitely read The Rest of the Robots before I, Robot.) At any rate, though the precise chronology is unclear, The Velvet Glove is always what surfaces first, when I poke around the early robot story memory cupboard. Moreover, I usually have to look up which Asimov story featured Nestor (Little Lost Robot), Herbie (Liar!) or Robbie (I may be making that one up) but Harrison’s Jon Venex was a proper hero for an eleven year old boy, a robot hero who fought the villains with his wits.
So I’ve now dared to write a robot story of my own, and I’d be the first to admit the challenge of finding something new to write about robots. Self-aware robots? Jon Venex was certainly self-aware. As was R Daneel Olivaw, and Helen O’Loy . Robots with a soul? Jasperodus (The Soul of the Robot ) had one of those, though at the risk of spoilers, its provenance was unique. A teenage robot? Nope – there was a whole TV series about a teenage robot, though it never crossed the pond to the UK where I live.
A bass-playing, teenage robot?
That may be it. That may be my contribution to the great canon of robot literature.
What’s the attraction of robot literature, then? That’s really where I’m headed. Why do we like reading about metal men (and women)? I suggest it’s because they hold up a mirror to ourselves. That’s true whether the robot shows us as we are, or else - not too paradoxically - the robot shows us what we are not.
Sure, sometimes robots are just funny, but look at young children, and you’ll see the same traits. A young child learning to be human is funny, sometimes painfully so. They mimic what they see, but with the eye of a child, and the adult observer laughs, or winces at an uncomfortably accurate parody. So the next time you read Asimov’s “Lenny” or Harry Harrison’s “The robot who wanted to know”, and find yourself smiling at a certain naivety…
But more often, writers use robots to show us our own darker side. Take Harry Harrison’s “The Velvet Glove”. Remembering it was published in 1956, try switching robot Jon Venex for an Afro-American, and see if the story changes in any essential way. Put another way, could “To Kill A Mockingbird” be re-written as a robot story? So Harrison wisely realised that the same story bypassed our prejudices better when set in a robot future rather than in an emotionally charged present. It becomes a trade-off – write the same story with robots, and you’ll get your message across with less resistance (but to a smaller readership), whereas write the story about a real oppressed minority and the oppressor will simply ban your book (and maybe send goons to kick down your door).
Or take Asimov’s The Caves of Steel . How is this different from modern-day white-cop-black-cop partnership? Again, Asimov is writing at the time when the American Civil Rights movement was becoming active (1953). In hindsight, was Asimov writing SF, a detective novel, or social commentary? Certainly his robots – even R. Daneel Olivaw – were property. The destruction of R. Sammy is not murder, but simply vandalism of property – a concept familiar to slaveholders everywhen and everywhere.
Asimov’s Bicentennial Man takes the theme of robot equality a step further. Under what circumstances would mankind admit cyberkind as brothers? Asimov rejects the militant solution – that robots should seize humanity, without regard for whether flesh-and-blood humankind is will to grant it. The robot Andrew Martin becomes human only when he fully accepts the limitations of humanity.
The next interesting theme in robot fiction is that of consciousness and the soul. Every human claims to have consciousness (alternatively referred to as self-awareness). Ultimately, though, this is unprovable. I can assert that I am self-aware, and my own experience – duration, memory and continuity of point of view – support the notion of an identity that is more or less fixed over a lifespan. The notion of a Turing Test is at best a comparison of two individuals’ answers to conform to an ill-defined norm of a “human” response. For a machine to pass a Turing Test is the closest we can come to proving that it is self-aware, and that is only true if we grant that all humans – the benchmarks – are self-aware. If you want to throw the notion of a soul into the mix, then good luck to you. Barrington J Bayley did, though, in his novel “The Soul of the Robot”, equating that with a sense of self, coupled with a sense of the transcendent. Why do I have a soul, when others of my kind do not? asks Jasperodus. Disappointingly, perhaps, Bayley comes down on the other side of the discussion to me, though perhaps that’s simply to leave open the option of a sequel to explore the other option.
I have to admit a sneaking admiration for Ray Bradbury’s robots. The ones who stand in for real people (such as Nettie and Braling Two in Marionettes, Inc ), who carry on the relationships in the absence of their originals. As selfish and occasionally murderous antidotes to Asimov’s fawning positronic creations, Bradbury’s sinister, ticking automatons are truly wicked, in the old sense and the new. The moment when you rest your head on your lover’s chest and hear the tik-tik-tik-tik, or your own doppelganger decides he doesn’t want to go back to his crate in the cellar – ah! Bradbury’s mechanicals definitely have no heart…