The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

We the People (Are Robots)

James Schellenberg
Posted August 9, 2007

Always anthropomorphic?Robots! They are some of the most durable figures in pop culture — action movies have used everything from the robots who terminate to the robots who are in disguise, but not all robots show up in big budget Hollywood cheesefests. Some thoughtful stuff goes on here too. A good example is the protagonist with a heart on a sleeve in Sue Lange’s We, Robot.

We, Robots is a fairly straightforward story. Avey is a somewhat egg-shaped robot, with some attachments for various tasks, some internal levitation capability, and a very sweet disposition. A couple named Dal and Chit buy Avey to look after their new baby daughter, Angelina, and Avey is happy to help out. Maybe with not much choice.

The situation gets a little more complicated when all domestic robots are recalled to the factory for an “upgrade”, Avey included. The story is told in the first person, so we get a very anguished account of what it’s like to feel pain — the pain augmentation is meant to keep the robots under control. “I hurt!” they cry out, and it’s true. But what will be the result — revolution? Termination? Enslavement of humans in a matrix of some kind?

Not so, thankfully. In fact, Lange is writing in a crowded field, so I was a little surprised to see that she found something unique for her robot story. After the pain upgrade, We, Robots tells about how a movement called transhumanism starts the practice of installing pain blocks (among other mechanical upgrades) in all of its followers. Some humans try to resist the appeal of the “transies” but eventually even Avey’s family gives in.

So, we have a typical robot protagonist, made sympathetic by way of anthropomorphic qualities, just like Astro Boy, just like C3PO, just like all the others, but matched with some human characters who are giving up their human qualities. The story takes on a sad tone, melancholy and reflective, in a way that I was not expecting. The book is about both coming and going, so to speak.

Always anthropomorphic?It also made me think about robot stories in general. As I mentioned, stories with robots in them are extremely common, and Lange is unusual in that she manages to make something unique out of her effort.

Robots really are a staple of pop culture. For a sense of the scope of their infiltration, see Wikipedia’s list of fictional robots and androids. They show up in comic books and videogames, just as much as zombies or aliens, and they’re a favourite of TV and movies, especially if they are generally human-like. Just tell the actor to act vaguely robotic, and there’s your futuristic element. See Star Trek’s Data or The Terminator.

Are robots just a way of anthropomorphizing technology? Helping us understand technology and the change in modern society, either by casting the robot as a protagonist or the hapless villain? Astro Boy is a marker at one end of the spectrum, with the lovable robot running as a theme all the way through Star Wars to the recent kid’s movie simply called Robots. They help us, they serve us, and they make us laugh and go “ahhh, that’s cute.”

Robots also lend themselves exceptionally well to villainy. If evil is the lack of human compassion, as Philip K. Dick wrote about in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, then here is the perfect unstoppable “personification” of evil. The Stepford Wives have wormed their way into popular conception for that reason. It seems like it’s one way or the other for robots, shiny happy or disturbing evil.

About the only exception that I can think of is Rudy Rucker’s Ware series, which cheerfully mixed and matched robots, organic life, computer viruses, interstellar signals, and lots of drugs in a wild vision of the future that made no distinction between human and non-human. Everything is interesting in Rucker’s universe.

The recent Battlestar Galactica series seems to be trying for a similar ambuigity in some plot threads, but the way the story starts off with genocide (not much of a spoiler!) tends to overwhelm the nuances. I have to repeat my admiration for the maybe-not-so-small victory of We, Robots: giants in literature and film have been banging this theme for a long time, and here’s a fresh corner, relatively undented.

We, Robots is a novella in the Conversation Pieces series from Aqueduct Press. I’ve only read one or two of the other items in the series (Lange’s is #16), but I was impressed with each one. I used to think that small presses would vary in the quality of their output, more so than a big company, but now I’ve noticed that if you find a particular small publisher that’s sharp and interesting, like Aqueduct, you can rely on them to deliver.


One Response to “We the People (Are Robots)”

  1. carol borden
    August 22nd, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

    it’s interesting. i never really thought of the robot women in stepford wives as evil. creepy as hell, but more a result of a creepy desire to have a perfect servant who liked their servitude.
    i guess that’s always strikes me–the ambivalence of a desire to relate to something else sentient while at the same time wanting what is basically a guilt-free slave.
    just some thoughts.

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