I, Human, not I, Robot

Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.

I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.

The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.

The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.

In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.

In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.

Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.

With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.

1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168

It's The End Of The World As... They Live It

The 7.0 magnitude Earthquake that hit Haiti last week has brought about a justifiably horrified reaction from the rest of the world. New reporters have been frantically covering the event, from the first reactions to the rising violence that is beginning to sweep Port du Prince. As I drove down my driveway this morning and on to Rt. 12 on my way to work, the reporter for the BBC explained that the situation was getting worse. People were living in the streets, and aid was having a difficult time reaching the million-plus refugees. I turned the radio off.

The images and descriptions that I've been seeing and hearing have been lingering in my thoughts in the meantime, and I can't help but think that there are some people out there who have wished for this moment to come, prepared for it, even.

I'm not talking about people who were dismissing the tragedy for their own benefit, but hoped for some sort of post-apocalyptic event that brought down the mass of organized society and government and allowed for a quiet solitude in the middle of nowhere with a stockpile of food and a gun to fend off intruders. Thus is the backbone of most post-apocalyptic fiction that seems to enthrall the nation.

Looking at the pictures that have streamed across the internet and the television, I see a window into a true apocalypse. And what I see is horrifying, disturbing and something that I would never, ever want to experience for myself. For all of the appeal that living alone, fending for one's self against the world, has, the true cost has been revealed in recent days.

The events that I have been listening to, watching and donating towards are something out of fiction, in a surreal way. First came the numbers of the dying - there was confusion from everyone who talked there. I listened as former US President Bill Clinton spoke from the country just a day after the horrific events, pleading for the public to help donate supplies to help the wounded and dying. Doctors and rescue workers were flying in from all corners of the globe, while hope faded from the rubble.

The past couple of days have taken an even darker turn. With little food and supplies from the rest of the world actually reaching the people, violence has broken out as desperation overtakes civility. Here is where we see the true nature of humanity, and with the virtual collapse of government, law and justice in Port du Prince, we are witness to a troubling situation that would undoubtedly occur with the fall of a massive nation, such as the United States. Gangs have begun to rise, and over the next six months, there will be problems in restoring order, and that's with the likely onetime assistance of the American public, and the deployment of the Marines and Army to the country.

Fortunately, as of this morning, a US hospital ship has arrived at Haiti and has begun to take on the wounded, while the 82nd Airborne has set up a distribution system for food and water that will hopefully help people. Haiti will be saved, by a concentrated US and International effort to save its people and help it to rebuild - a process that might take years. If this is the reaction within days of a crisis and within days of almost certain rescue, what would happen in the event that there is no aid coming in from others? I suspect that while Haiti shows us much, it would barely tip the scales.

If the fantasy of the true libertarian comes true, the same thing will happen here. Cities would fall into lawlessness, looting and rioting days after any sort of event, when the first pangs of hunger set in. How soon, in Port du Prince, before neighbors will begin to murder for water, food and other essential supplies, if it hasn't begun already? As I sit at home, surrounded by the trappings of a modern society, I see just how much I can lose, but also how terrifying life would become with the lost of control of modern society. I certainly cannot imagine how the Haitians are coping with this drastic change, and while watching, I'm glad that I'm in some small position to help, and hope that my meager contribution will make it to the country.

The past couple of days have been a sobering, dark look at everything we have to lose; not just our material possessions, but our sanity as a culture. I hope that I never live through something like what the people of Port du Prince is going through right now. Moreover, I hope that those with the video game consoles will look closely at what the true face of their fantasy is.