Disclaimer: I, Black Cap, do not own any of the works referenced in this guide. Well, except one, but it barely counts anyway. Don't own Engadget either. Which is good, since I can't make head or tail out of what most of the articles are about.
The Sane Writer's Guide To: Robots in Fiction
Cyborgs and Sentient Toasters Sold Separately
"Good news, everyone! I've taught the toaster to feel love!"
I have a confession to make: I browse Engadget when I should be writing. I don't read it so much to learn what's what and what's hot in electronics so much as I read it for pieces on robots. Like, say, the little yellow "dancing" robot which was recently featured in a music video, or the supermodel fembot who frankly terrifies people instead of making them love her. Or the robot which I understand just defeated two human opponents this week on Jeopardy.
I suppose it shouldn't surprise me so much. Humanity had always been fascinated with the concept of artificial life, whether cloned or crafted. Robots in particular are one of our purest expressions of that fascination.
Now, if I were a Wikipedia article, I'd go on about the laws of robotics and the controversy surrounding artificial intelligence in mind-numbingly excruciating detail, making a point to use only words which exceeded ten letters in length. If I were a TVTropes page, I'd give a list of the many other mediums that utilized robots and be bitingly humorous. If I were a Limyaael rant, I'd yell at my readers but still make a pretty decent point.
Instead, I'll just wing it. No pun intended.
While robots are most commonly seen in works of science fiction, literary or otherwise, (one of the more well-known non-literary examples being the Star Wars universe); they've also appeared in superhero fiction and in other small genres (Steampunk/clockpunk robots anyone?). They're also quite popular in manga, appearing regularly in shounen and shoujo alike.
Unlike most other popular fiction archetypes – for instance, vampires, zombies, and ghosts – robots tend to be pretty evenly spread throughout the heroism/villainy spectrum.
There is a wide variety of evil robots – mechanical and manipulative chessmasters who rebel against humanity, faceless mooks whom the (human) hero kills with impunity, and purely evil not-even-near-human killing machines are just some of the many varieties. In superhero novels and comic books, robots are a good way to let the hero be as violent as possible with his grunt adversaries, all the while keeping his or her moral record scrupulously clean. For instance, Victor von Doom was notorious for having his Doombots masquerade as the real deal, allowing him to constantly dupe his adversaries.
The idea of a war between humans and machines is a common one, yet versatile in the hands of a good writer. As combat between average-yet-badass human protagonists and soulless, emotionless, murder machines can grow dull and cliched, it's almost a free pass to play around with the concept. How "human" are the robots, anyway? Do they feel pain, or any kind of emotion whatsoever? Are they immortal, or do they malfunction or break down with time? Is their intelligence on the level of a two-buck calculator, or is it an a more godly scale? What do they look like – identical to real humans, utterly inhuman, or something in between? Do they constantly use the same method and style of fighting, or do they adapt, just as their human opponents would?
Morally "good" robots can be everything from cute sidekicks to love interests (It's interesting to note that the latter are all but exclusively female, and a good 75% of them are manga based). The latter are especially interesting: after all, can machines feel love, let alone any other emotion, even within the realms of fiction?
Robot/human romances are surprisingly common. The robots themselves are typically female, especially in manga works, and the humans male. The idea, if you will, is akin to the rash of vampire/human relationships in fantasy and supernatural fiction, albeit with the genders reversed. However, it arguably shares more traits with the Magical Girlfriend concept: in short, an unlucky everyguy meets a mystical or otherworldly girl who falls in love with him, an almost "perfect" girl. After all, isn't a robot supposedly "perfect" to begin with?
The question is, why would the robot be identical to a human girl, let alone capable of experiencing the entire human range of emotions? While the human appearance is easily justified by the need to make humans feel comfortable around the robot (also a factor for real life robots as well and overlaps with the uncanny valley concept); why would they need to give it all of the qualities of a human being (The mildest matter being the robot's inherent ability to rebel due to its emotions, the most unusual being why the robot is foreseeably able to have sex with a human and presumably receive pleasure from the experience).How "real" is a love between a human and a robot – is all of the true feeling on the human side, or dis the human just using the robot? Is the robot programmed to react the same way a human would, or does it actually react?
To return to the earlier point of good robots in general, is it common or unusual for robots to live and work aside humans, or form relationships with them? Are robots considered property? Are there people who fear all robots or deem them evil? Do robots have a culture separate from that of humans? Are they considered a separate race? Are robots equal to humans, or are they considered slaves or pets? Are they considered living things, or is is perfectly fine for them to be scrapped and destroyed whenever their owners feel like it?
Robots provide an opportunity for philosophy in fiction – after all, how does one measure humanity? They are thought-provoking and intriguing at their best, and polarizing and, to quote TVTropes, Anvilicious at their worst. While the idea of using robots to drive home a moral about racism and differences has been done well in the past, the amount of failures in this medium far outweigh the successes.
In the end, humanity's fascination with robots is entirely understandable. There are few such character archetypes which can provoke such a broad range of questions and emotions in the reader's mind. Robots are a sign of humanity's strides towards the future – and looking at Engadget, the time when we begin to confront the questions above not just in fantasy but in reality might not be as far away as we think.
(After all, an army made up of copies of that little yellow dancing robot would be impossible to counter. Who could conquer something so adorable?)
Author's Note: Yes, this is a day late. But was it worth it?
Most of the inspiration for this began with a new story of my own, featuring robots. During conceptualization, I found myself enthralled by the sheer number of possibilities and paths available. So I got on the computer and wrote a Sane Writer's Guide about it. First one in a long time, too.
I'm upping the ratings for these to T, although it's mainly for the odd instance of swearing.
Unfortunately, I did not watch the Jeopardy episodes featuring Watson. I have, however, heard that it was very entertaining.
And I can't be the only one who wants a Keepon dancing robot as a pet. There's just no way.
Anyway! Thanks for reading, and be nice to your laptops and cellphones and televisions. You never know when the robot revolution will happen, after all...