domingo, 11 de novembro de 2012

The Mechanical God (Introduction) Low Voltage Ontological Currents by Brian W. Aldiss

Robots are just lonely people.

Robots have much to do with technology—particularly technology at play; they have much more to do with humans—particularly humans at bay.

The alien is (generally) to be hated. The robot is (generally) to be pitied. The robot is in many ways a shadow of ourselves, our stolen reflection, a beautiful thing whose attraction is dangerous. Such is the argument I wish to pursue here, to introduce essays designed to consider that gray area where human and machine join and complement each other.

Engineers have always found it easy to build attractive robots. Ugly robots do not exist, unless they are wildly asymmetrical. Yet ugly humans abound. And one of the ugliest objects ever seen is a prototype four-legged truck which walks, designed by General Electric for the army. It has legs in place of wheels. Why should we perceive four-legged trucks as against nature, whereas the substitution of metal for skin in some mysterious way pleases our instincts?

We find it easy to be charmed by beautiful or anthropomorphic things. Most of the robots in fact, fiction, and play have been designed beautiful. They certainly delight children. In the nursery, robots have defeated teddy bears, dolls, golliwogs, and even Action Man in the popularity polls. Their flashing eyes, clutching arms, growling voices, and military march do not fool us. We know they’re lovable. They shine for us.

To date, few people have had to cope with more than one robot at a time. So far at least, the robot appears as an emblem of solitude, a man in an iron mask, a knight in shining armor, an asexual creature who cannot mate, and in any case has no female to mate with.

Robot communities are as rare as cities full of men in iron masks.

The first robot culture in fiction—though some scholar will pop up and tell me that it was not the first—is in Frigyes Karinthy’s Voyage to Faremido. Faremido is a planet populated by beautiful robots. Karinthy’s robots are called solasis, and they are more than just pretty faces.

Now and then it turned to me its gleaming, golden metal head; a bluish light shone upon me from the brilliant eyes; then it started to sing, and now I felt clearly that it was addressing me with these sounds; that in this country the language was made up of music, and that the words consisted of musical phrases. (1)

The solasis manufacture their own kind in factories. They study Earth through their telescopes and consider that human beings are a kind of pathogenic germ, which can destroy the solasis. The hero becomes convinced by their arguments after living with them for some while, and begs the machines to transform him into one of them. But he is too primitive, and instead they return him to Earth.

It is true this is satire, modeled overtly on Jonathan Swift, yet its mood is tender. This is the more remarkable—and so is the sophistication of the robot society—when we recall that it was written during World War I and published in Budapest, Karinthy’s home, in 1917. Karel Capek’s androidlike robots were still some years in the future; automation and cybernetics still dreams. Voyage to Faremido is a brilliantly original story and rejoices in the beauty of robots long before the arrival of the lovely female robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), or the male robot Erik, who features on the cover of Jasia Reichardt’s compilation, Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction (1978). (2) (Erik starred in a Model Engineer exhibition in 1928. He was one of the “real” robots which were popular throughout the thirties.)

Robots have never belonged entirely to science fiction. The first emperor of China, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, had built for him in 206 B.C. a mechanical orchestra comprising twelve musicians cast in bronze and dressed in silks, who played lutes or guitars and were worked by ropes and human breath. From this elaborate mechanism, to the automata which delighted the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the industrial robots of today, automata have played a considerable role, generally rather petlike, of more considerable importance than their role in fiction.

In our century, the robot graduated from the role of pet or plaything as the possibility of building working robots increased. His influence on art, for instance, has been great. The fathers of pop art in the early fifties, as Richard Hamilton, one of their leaders, has confessed, were hooked on science fiction and science fiction movies, particularly if robots were involved. According to one critic, “the robot seems to have been the patron saint of the movement.” (3) Like the futurists before them, the pop artists were mad on everything shiny and technologically competent. Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and George Segal, all involved with questions of multiple image and machine rivalry as sibling rivalry, are brothers to science fiction writers.

Eduardo Paolozzi—hardly an orthodox pop artist—has created many robots and figures from unexpected metal parts which represent the metamorphosis of rubbish. His alien technologies become compressed and interiorized in an ideal way, particularly in some of his collages and screen prints, which resemble escalated technological areas such as printed circuitry. Paolozzi himself has said of science fiction, “It might be possible that sensations of a difficult-to-describe nature be expended at the showing of a low-budget horror film.” (4) We all know about those difficult-to-describe sensations; they are what an SF writer deals in—or, more exactly, hopes to be able to deal in. Robots, as strangely neutral nonbeings, lead us to the question of our being and that central puzzle.

Pop art is interested in surfaces and duplication of images and technological fantasy. Andy Warhol does more than sum matters up in an interview he gave toG. R. Swenson:

I think everybody should be a machine.
I think everybody should like everybody.
Is that what pop art is all about?
Yes, it’s liking things.
And liking things is like being a machine?
Yes, because you do the same thing every time.
You do it over and over again.
And you approve of that?
Yes, because it’s all fantasy. (5)

One can almost hear the incredulity in the interviewer’s voice. But the interesting thing is that everyone since Ch’in Shih Huang Ti has been warm and friendly (or, to include Warhol, cool and friendly) toward our metal friends. Only in works of what we loosely call science fiction has the robot become foe to man. Even in the work that gave robots their name, R.U.R., they are already up in arms against us.

Why this should be is difficult to see. Robots are generally solitary since they represent outsiders or antiheroes in human society. In the mass, they perhaps represent something different—shorthand for the Wehrmacht, for example. Technocratic science fiction writers, like the early Asimov, long for law and order—which in our age means technological order. But order is not possible in disorderly human affairs, or not at our present youthful evolutionary stage; nor will it be until we are reduced to a robotlike state of obedience. Robots, being amenable to laws and orders, are amenable to order. They make ideal citizens—but only of a dead culture.

This point is dramatized in one of the most interesting of all robot novels, Jack Williamson’s Humanoids (1949). The dark and beautiful little robots suggesting in form animae, seek by kindly means to reduce man to a happy and secure state of being. The hero is a man who rebels, recognizing such domesticating utopianism as death to the spirit.

The ideas robots conform to are, of course, humanity’s ideas. But man comprises emotion as well as intellect. Man, being whole, is always in conflict with his own ideas. Robots are only half human. In consequence, they are able to conform to man’s intellectual ideas against which his spirit constantly rebels.

Robots are lonely people because they exemplify current isolations inseparable from our industrial society. They are literally encased in technology. Of course, the interpretation of the role of the robot must vary according to the individual author, but, if we regard them as flagships of a future technology, then we are predicting that mankind will be imprisoned in that technology, because we do not respond to robots as aliens; because the way people in general respond to robots is to treat them in a welcoming fashion, as people. The beautiful Barbarella accepts Diktor as her lover and praises him (though the poor robot’s response is to say apologetically that there is “something a bit mechanical about my movements”). (6)

If this is what we are to become—beings without emotional tone, with merely automatic responses to given situations—then robots represent in symbolic form the next stage of human evolution. In which case, we should take heed of the warning and accept a measure of chaos in preference to a rule of logic. Such is the message we receive from the novels of Philip K. Dick, one of the best robotic-writers, because he generally uses his robots as buffers between the living and nonliving. In Dick’s characters, the ontological current, the current of being, fluctuates under pressure of modern society, whether here or on Mars; his robots are paradigms of people isolated through illness, with low-voltage ontological currents.

Sometimes robots are aware of what they lack and, like the Tin Man, go in search of it. Such is the case of Jasperodus, the robot whose Bildungsroman is Barrington J. Bayley’s Soul of the Robot (1974). (7) Jasperodus works his way towards an understanding of consciousness.

The best-known example of robots as forming the next stage in human evolution appears in Clifford Simak’s City (book form 1952). (8) The humans, the Websters, pass on most of their responsibilities to Jenkins, the robot, and robots are then left to run affairs. As a result, the humans disappear from Earth and even lose human form. A dramatic embodiment indeed of the division between will and psyche, or intellect and emotion, or however one cares to phrase a dichotomy of which all are aware. Interestingly, Jenkins begins his existence as a sort of butler or gentleman’s gentleman, the breed of human which most closely models its behavior on robotic responses.

As long as we understand this symbolic function of robots, all is spiritually well. As soon as we cannot understand it, or as soon as we start admiring robots for being robotic, we are in the Warhol position of rejecting our own feelings, and hence of rejecting reality. In my robot novel Eighty-Minute Hour (1974), ruinous human affairs are taken over after a third world war by a massive computer complex whose robotic projections rule the sociopolitical system; this is acceptable only because, as one of the characters says, the computer complex “represents a genuine human desire to repress its humanity.” (9)

Robots in their pet function are valid. So are robots in their function as analogs of our dehumanized selves. There is a middle ground where robots may achieve dramatic effect in stories but must inevitably remain without extraliterary meaning. An instance is the robot story where the machines are so likely to kill humans that laws are built in to stop them from doing so—laws which they may then circumvent, or appear to circumvent. As a plot idea this is exciting, but its significance is doubtful; we must suffer from paranoia before the requisite frisson of fear persuades us that these animated hunks of technology can in any way possess sinister motives (that is, think and feel as humans do).

Another instance where even the literary effect is questionable is when robots are portrayed as beings of metal otherwise indistinguishable from human. Female and marriageable robots enter under this heading. To take such sentimentality seriously is neither literature nor science. A robot aspiring to human emotion, or deceiving humans into thinking that it feels emotions, is a subject for comedy or for satire, as Robert Sheckley realized long ago.

One must make it clear that this sweeping statement does not include androids—robots which look very like or are indistinguishable from humans. The human trait which fears things like humans that are inhuman is an ancient one, so ancient that we might even believe there were vampires in Babylon. Nothing is more terrifying than a corpse that moves. Androids are corpses that move—dead to us as far as emotions go, without ontological current. The Yul Brynner android in Michael Crichton’s film Westworld goes on moving when it should be destroyed—a fearsome example of what androids may get up to. Silicon chips they may have; love and hate they do not.

What never fails to alarm us in science fiction is robots and androids that act as if they love or hate, whereas in reality they are just obeying a program. One of the most telling of all robot stories is Walter Miller’s “I Made You” (1954), in which a man lies dying in a cave on the moon, trapped there by a mobile autocyber fire-control unit whose receptors have been shot away so that it cannot tell friend from foe. The man programmed the unit. Flence his dying plea, “I’m human, 1 made you. . . .” (10) But nothing can be done. The war machine is immune to argument. It has no mercy. It has no intelligence, no emotions. Damaged, it is implacable simply because it is a stupid obedient robot. It certainly alarms us.

The essays in this volume concentrate on the technological and social implications of robots and other machines in science fiction. Most readers or cinemagoers read robots in a more visceral sense, I believe. What sort of human being neither loves nor hates, but instead obeys a program? Answer: the psychotic human being. Robots very effectively symbolize psychotics. And of course the sickness brings solitude. Illness isolates. In the words of John Donne, “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.” (11) Robots are lonely people, and always low on ontological current.

With populations growing in high-density urban clusters last century and this, isolation has paradoxically grown apace. Mental illness has also increased. By corollary, mental illness is increasingly studied, and we now understand how humans suffer from many robotlike disorders—compulsive behavior and all sorts of incorrect programming. Not only human psychology but human physiology too has been submitted to new tests, particularly in relation to speed (space travel being the prime case); human beings have been required as never before to function as extensions of the machine.

There are virus diseases which turn people into robotlike creatures, one of the most remarkable being the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica. A wave of this virus swept the world for about a decade, from the time of World War I through the twenties, claiming some five million lives. A few patients, preserved in American sanitariums, lived out their lives in strange and strangely various states of living death, until, in 1969, it was discovered that the drug L-Dopa had a dramatic effect on them. Some were able to arouse themselves into normal states of being and recount what they had experienced. The classic account of these experiences is Oliver W. Sachs’s Awakenings (1973). If robots could communicate, they would speak as do Sachs’s patients:

I ceased to have any moods. I ceased to care about anything. Nothing moved me— not even the death of my parents. I forgot what it felt like to be happy or unhappy. Was it good or bad? It was neither. It was nothing.

You see, my space, our space, is nothing like your space: our space gets bigger and smaller, it bounces back on itself, and it loops itself round until it runs into itself. (12)

Preceding an attack of the illness, one patient dreamed a fearful premonitory dream, in which she was imprisoned in an inaccessible castle, but the castle took the form and shape of her herself. She also dreamed that she had become a living, sentient statue of stone. She dreamed of a death that was different from death.

Recovery was sometimes no less dramatic. A patient jumped up in the twinkling of an eye, after many years of being totally motionless. Her period of being deactivated had no subjective duration. In the words of Sachs, “it was as if the ontological current, the current of being, could be suddenly ‘switched off and as suddenly ‘switched on,’ with no loss of action patterns in between, nor any need to relearn them subsequently—and this because for her no time had elapsed.

Lonely and sick people tell us what the robot state is like. It is a life that is different from life. Few passages quite as vivid as these reports emerge from science fiction literature, although there have been phases of popularity for stories in which the chief character, even the “I” persona, has stood revealed as a robot. Philip Dick’s title character in “Imposter” (1953) turns out to be a perambulating A-bomb, to his own surprise as much as humanity’s. The writer of Chan Davis’s “Letter to Ellen” (1947) has trouble proposing to the eponymous lady, since he must break it to her in the same breath that he is a - - (14)

There may be symbolism here, but there is little examination of the inwardness or lack of inwardness in robots. Science fiction is traditionally an outward-directed literature. 1 believe it stands on the threshold of another great adventurous phase, when it will exploit the inwardness of the themes that have been waiting on its doorstep all along.

Robotry would be as good a place as any at which to start.


1. Frigyes Karinthy, Voyage to Faremido (1917; rpt. London: New English Library, 1978), p. 34.
2. Jasia Reichardt, ed., Robots: Facts, Fiction, and Prediction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).
3. Rosemary Dinnage, Times Literary Supplement, 7 March 1980, p. 264.
4. Diane Kirkpatrick, Eduardo Paolozzi (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1969).
5. John Russell and Suzi Gablik, Pop Art Redefined (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), p. 116.
6. Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella, orig. publ. Grove Press, 1966, from the frame as rpt. in The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Brian Ash, ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1977), p. 216.
7. Barrington J. Bayley, The Soul of the Robot, rev. edn. (London: Allison & Busby, 1976).
8. Clifford Simak, City (New York: Gnome Press, 1952).
9. Brian Aldiss, Eighty-Minute Hour (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974), p. 14.
10. Walter Miller, “I Made You,” Astounding, March 1954, p. 55.
11. John Donne, as quoted in Oliver W. Sachs, Awakenings (1978; rpt. London: Penguin, 1976).
12. Oliver W. Sachs, Awakenings, pp. 96-97.
13. Ibid., p. 129 n.
14. Chan Davis, “Letter to Ellen,” Astounding, June 1947.

In: The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Machines in Science Fiction. Edited by Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich (Editor). London (1982), pp. 3-9.

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