Robots: Neither Menace nor Pathos
Last week’s blog post about cyborgs got me to thinking about Isaac Asimov. I got to thinking about Asimov because Leilane Nishime says in her article that most cyborgs in fiction fall into one of two groups: they’re either dangerous machines that want to kill us all, or they’re tragic figures that try desperately to stay in touch with their human side. Very few cyborgs in fiction embrace their cyborginess and do something different with it.
Well, over two decades before Nishime’s article was published, Isaac Asimov had almost the exact same thing to say about robots. The following is an excerpt from The Complete Robot, an anthology of his robot stories that was published in 1982:
By the time I was in my late teens and already a hardened science fiction reader, I had read many robot stories and found that they fell into two classes.
In the first class there was Robot-as-Menace. I don’t have to explain that overmuch. Such stories were a mixture of “clank-clank” and “aarghh” and “There are some things man was not meant to know.” After a while, they palled dreadfully and I couldn’t stand them.
In the second class (a much smaller one) there was Robot-as-Pathos. In such stories the robots were lovable and were usually put upon by cruel human beings. These charmed me. In late 1938 two such stories hit the stands that particularly impressed me. One was a short story by Eando Binder entitled “I, Robot,” about a saintly robot named Adam Link; another was a story by Lester del Rey, entitled “Helen O’Loy,” that touched me with its portrayal of a robot that was everything a loyal wife should be.
When, therefore, on June 10, 1939 (yes, I do keep meticulous records), I sat down to write my first robot story, there was no question that I fully intended to write a Robot-as-Pathos story. I wrote “Robbie,” about a robot nurse and a little girl and love and a prejudiced mother and a weak father and a broken heart and a tearful reunion. (It originally appeared under the title-one I hated-of “Strange Playfellow.”)
But something odd happened as I wrote this first story. I managed to get the dim vision of a robot as neither Menace nor Pathos. I began to think of robots as industrial products built by matter-of-fact engineers. They were built with safety features so they weren’t Menaces and they were fashioned for certain jobs so that no Pathos was necessarily involved.
It’s the year 2012 now and science fiction writers aren’t doing much better. Especially in TV and the movies, robots are rehashing the same old territory. The evil robots, the ones you throw into a summer blockbuster when your hero needs something to shoot at, aren’t even that bad. But the robot-as-pathos stories… Think A.I. Bicentennial Man. TRON. Prometheus and that horrible Will Smith movie I, Robot. The robots are poor, poor futuristic slaves when the writer could have tried something new.
But sometimes sci-fi writers do try something new and different with their robot characters. The following is a list of five robots (okay, a couple of them are AI’s) in science fiction who get character development beyond mere menace or pathos:
HAL 9000, 2001
What is HAL doing in this list? HAL was a menace! Well, yes, but if you read the book 2001 and its sequel 2010, you’ll find out that there was much more to HAL’s personality than that monotone voice and creepy red eye. HAL was systematically driven insane by a conflict in his programming: he was built to process information as accurately as possible, but he was given orders to conceal from the astronauts the real purpose of their space mission. Eventually he decided that the only way to keep the astronauts from finding out about their real mission without lying to anybody was … get rid of the astronauts. For simultaneously being an example of both menace and pathos, HAL deserves a spot on this list.
R2-D2, Star Wars
Nothing gets this indomitable little droid down. While his companion C-3PO moans “We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life,” R2’s all “Boop-de-boop!” and keeps on rolling. He gets to be courier of a critical message from Princess Leia and help destroy both Death Stars.
Turing Hopper, You’ve Got Murder
Turing Hopper may be less famous than the other bots on this list, but she’s no less cool. She’s the heroine of Donna Andrews’s 2002 mystery novel, You’ve Got Murder, and its sequels. Being a sentient search engine gives Turing Hopper the perfect preparation to go amateur detective. She sifts through terabytes of online records and finds patterns in the data to figure out whodunit, all while simultaneously dealing with her normal server requests and pursuing her other hobby, which is cooking. She keeps her programmers bamboozled about whether she’s sentient or not by acting just silly enough that they think she’s a joke.
Who could forget the adorable star of the beloved Pixar movie? Though WALL-E is programmed to be a trash compactor, he winds up bumbling his way into saving the world. Particularly notable in this movie is that it contains an entire society of robots, some of whom are good and some are evil. From time to time they disagree with each other about the fate of the human race.
The badassest robot in all of science fiction.
How badass is he? First of all, he hangs with the United States Colonial Marines, a team of professional badasses. When they get sent on assignment, does he whinge about wanting to be human, like his predecessor David, or try to kill everybody, like Ash? No. He wants to do his goddamned job. Then when the going gets tough, he continues doing his damn job. Ripped in half by an alien queen? No problem, he’s just going to save Newt’s life, quip with Ripley a bit, then survive to the end of the movie. That’s badass.