Monday, December 17, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Robots

Well, my timing is obviously a little off this month, but it's finally time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Next month, everything should be back to normal with my schedule. Today, we're cracking open the chassis and examining the wires and gears of robots.

Robots are, without a doubt, one of the oldest tropes in the history of science fiction. From the earliest days of man's technological aspirations, we've been attempting to cast our eyes forward at what may be possible one day, and invariably these visions of the future always seem to contain advanced robotics of some kind.

And as with many far out extrapolations of our scientific exploits, science fiction has paved the way of exploration, particularly during the golden age of sci-fi that spawned so many of the classic books and movies that went on to influence the genre for decades to come.

Of course, like many of the tropes I've explored in this series, the actual root of the robot lies much further back in history, in the ancient myths and legends of varied cultures around the world. In the ancient Chinese text of the Liezi, there is an account of King Mu of Zhou's strange encounter with an automaton built by a mechanical artificer named Yan Shi. According to the text, it was constructed of wood and leather, and "walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being."

In Greek mythology we have Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery. In addition to forging the iconic weapons of the Olympic gods and heroes, he also was said to have built several metal automata as servants, from intelligent golden handmaidens to table-like tripods that moved about of their own volition. These mythological accounts would inspire Aristotle, who speculated in Politics that it would take an automaton revolution to end slavery and bring about true human equality. "There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves," he said. "This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation."

The word "robot" itself was popularized by Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek in R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots), his 1921 play about a factory that creates artificial people for labor. While Čapek's robot's were closer to what we'd call androids today, the word became widely used in popular culture and fiction following the play's success.

1927 saw the release of Fritz Lang's German expressionist film, Metropolis. This groundbreaking dystopian marked the first portrayal of a robot on film, the Maschinenmensch, which captured the sense of awe and strangeness that would typify golden age robots.

These days, robots are likely one of the first concepts that spring to most minds when the words "science" and "fiction" are coupled. The classic works of influential authors like Isaac Asimov—who formulated the Three Laws of Robotics in his popular Robot series—have made our mechanical friends synonymous with scifi. The traditional vision of robots has become somewhat cliche in the last twenty years or so, massaged and refined into sub-tropes like androids, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences, but for the most part fictional robots are still going strong.

Meanwhile, their real world counterparts are growing more advanced every day. Robots have served fundamental roles in our society for decades, mostly in the industrial sector. But as the technology behind their construction and capabilities grows, so does the list of their applications. Besides their typical roles in manufacturing, robots are also being employed as everything from military combat drones to household vacuum cleaners. I don't know if the robopocalypse is coming anytime soon, but it would probably serve us well to get used to the idea of living with robots, as their presence is only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on.

Recommended Reading:
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Recommended Viewing:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Star Wars
Iron Man

Recommended Gaming:
Half-Life 2
Fallout 3
Portal 2

16 comments:

  1. I love robots! Any robot, from the classic chore doer, to androids and corporeal AIs. They are definitely already part of our lives, and will only become more closely tied to our societies as we evolve. I'm not worried about them revolting against us and killing us all, though. I strongly suspect the concept of freedom and equality is an organics thing, and that machines---should they become self-aware---will not see us as their masters or creators or anything so meaning-laden. It's very likely they'll be completely indifferent to us, rather than "hate" us (which is a very human feeling).

    I have robots, androids and AIs in my fiction, but they don't play any major role and are merely coexisting with humans and minding their chores, tasks and (respectively) interests. But that's just because I'm not centered on artificial life in my fiction. If I were, I'd be kind of obliged to make robots more human, no? ;)

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    1. I'm with you on that one. I don't think we'll be facing down a battalion of robots anytime soon, unless there's a human being somewhere at the reigns. And we're so far removed yet from any true artificial intelligence that I think it will be a long while before we see anything remotely like the personable AIs in fiction.

      That being said, I do enjoy a good old fashioned robot tale, and it might be high time I wrote one myself! Thanks for stopping by, Vero.

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    2. I have a robot as the main character in a book I wrote. He's the narrator and it was a blast writing from his point of view. Nice to see other bot fans out there.
      BTW Metropolis is a great great film, the set design alone is worth the watch. It does get a bit stilted sometimes but that's due to the acting style at the time which was overtly expressive, and almost comical.

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  2. Ah yes... Robots. I really have to read Asimov some day.

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    1. He's well worth the read, in my opinion! Asimov has been a huge influence on me. Thanks for reading, Misha.

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  3. I didn't realize robots went back that far. Oddly enough, I've not written one into any of my books.

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    1. If I've learned anything while writing this series, it's how surprisingly old a lot of these tropes are. Most of them end up being older than the genre itself!

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

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  4. I love writing robot stories. They're a great way to reflect on humanity.

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    1. I haven't made it around to writing any true robots into my stories yet (though I have written an AI or two). I agree; robots can be a great tool for a little commentary on the human condition.

      Thanks for stopping by, Adam!

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  5. Some great recommendations. I haven't read Fahrenheit 451 since high school; I really enjoyed it. And Star Wars...R2D2 and C3PO are my faves. *grin*

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    1. I think I'm due for a Fahrenheit 451 reread, myself. The mechanical hound is one of my favorite robots of all time. And of course, who doesn't love R2 and C3PO? ;)

      Thanks for reading, Charity!

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  6. Great list J.W. I have been looking for R.U.R for years, but still haven't found it. This is a must read. BTW You should join our blogfest. Sign up!

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    1. Signed up! Thanks for the invite, Maurice.

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  7. Hey JW! Just stopping by to wish a happy holiday to you and yours. Hope the next week treats you well and I hope you have a great New Year's! It's been fun getting to blog-know you this year! :D All the best, R

    PS--Skynet is coming. They just got the date wrong!

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    1. Thanks so much, Randi. Same goes to you on all accounts! Glad to have met you this year, and I hope you meet and all writing goals in 2013. :)

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  8. This is a great post! I found this blog through a net search and was very happy to. I'm a huge robot fan, and it's nice to see there are some other like minded humans out there as well!

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Thanks for reading!