In Matt Groening’s Futurama, delivery boy Philip J. Fry is asked, “You really want a robot for a friend?” His enthusiastic reply: “Yeah, ever since I was six.”
This one exchange perfectly illustrates the fascination of SF readers with robots. And later the series sums up our ambivalent feelings toward them, as Fry’s robot friend, Bender, repeats his mantra: “Kill all humans.” Love them or fear them, robots are an integral part of science fiction.
By now the literary antecedents of robots are so well known that I’m sure you can recite them along with me. The Iliad refers to gold mechanical servants constructed by Hephaestus; both Norse and Jewish mythology include humanlike clay creatures (giants and golems, respectively); Talus the “iron man” in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem The Faerie Queene; the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio; and of course Tik-Tok from the Oz books.
The word “robot” (derived from Czech words for “worker”) comes from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots).
Pre-Golden Age SF was filled with robots: notable examples include Edmond Hamilton’s The Metal Giants (1926), David H. Keller’s “The Threat of the Robot” (1929), and Harl Vincent’s “Rex” (1934). (I’d love to put in a plug for Neil R. Jones’s 1930s-era “Professor Jameson” stories, but their lovable main characters were cyborgs—biological brains in mechanical bodies—and not true robots. Another column, perhaps.)
In the Golden Age robots were further refined by such authors as Eando Binder (whose Adam Link stories were published in book form as I, Robot in 1938), Lester Del Rey (“Helen O’Loy,” 1938), Jack Williamson (the Humanoids series, beginning in 1947); and of course, Isaac Asimov (Positronic Robots series, beginning in 1940).
Robot stories continued in the SF of later eras. Of particular note are Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories (1963); Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972); John Sladek’s Roderick (1980); Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover (1982); and Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children (2008).
Movies have featured a long string of robots: Futura (a.k.a. Maria) in Metropolis (1927); Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Robby (Forbidden Planet, 1956, and numerous other appearances); drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running (1972); the murderous robots of Westworld (1973); the droids of Star Wars (1977) and sequels; the androids Ash (Alien, 1979) and Bishop (Aliens 1986); Dot Matrix (Spaceballs, 1987); The Terminator (1984 and sequels); WALL-E (2008); the list goes on and on.
Television has also had its share of robots, probably because it requires minimal makeup and special effects for a human actor to portray a robot. Robby had a fruitful career as a guest star in many TV shows. The Jetsons (1962) brought us Rosie the robot maid; Doctor Who (1963) featured so many robots that it’s easy to lose track; Astro Boy debuted in 1963. Those who wasted too much of their childhoods on bad TV (like me) will surely remember Tobor The 8th Man (1965), the Robby-inspired Robot from Lost in Space (1965), and Hymie the Robot from Get Smart (1964). Of particular note are the robots Questor in 1974’s The Questor Tapes and the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica (both the 1978 original and the 2004 remake).
In more recent times the number of TV robots has exploded, and it’s impossible to list even the most notable. Still, one must acknowledge The Transformers (1984), Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987), the wacky robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (1988), and the aforementioned Bender (Futurama, 1999).
And what discussion of famous SF robots could be complete without mentioning Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Writers of SF have approached robots from three different (but not necessarily exclusive) directions. We might call these Robot-as-Menace, Sympathetic-Robot, and Robot-as-Tool.
Robot-as-Menace is the old Frankenstein formula: robots out to destroy us. Either they invade, or they rebel, or they serve us so well that we lose our initiative and die off. One way or another, robots replace us.
In the Sympathetic-Robot approach, the robot is a full-fledged character in the story, usually with a kind heart (mechanical though it may be). In extreme examples we get the Pinocchio story of the robot that ultimately wants to be human.
With Robot-as-Tool, robots are generally there to do a job—usually a job that humans can’t or won’t do. (When robots take jobs away from humans, the story shades over into Robot-as-Menace.)
Often (as in Asimov’s Positronic Robot stories or Futurama) all three elements appear. Some robots are tools, some are menaces, and others are sympathetic characters.
One related theme that I haven’t explored is Artificial Intelligence. While robots can be A.I.s, the A.I. story is essentially a different beast . . . one that we’ll take up at another time.
Daniel H. Wilson
Doubleday, 347 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Man and Machine
Daniel H. Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics; you may recognize his name from his humorous 2005 book How to Survive a Robot Uprising. Now he’s turned his hand to fiction: specifically, the story of some robots who menace the entire human race.
Robopocalypse is not so much a book as a Publishing Event. Before publication, the story was optioned by DreamWorks, with Steven Spielberg signed on as director of the movie. The novel is being marketed to the mainstream thriller crowd: publicity compares Wilson to Michael Crichton and the back cover displays quotes from bestsellers Clive Cussler, Lincoln Child, and Robert Crais.
Robopocalypse is set in the very near future. In a secret government lab, a researcher invents an Artificial Intelligence called Archos. Over the course of a few months, there are scattered incidents of machines malfunctioning: a domestic robot kills a man in a convenience store, a malfunctioning military robot menaces troops in Afghanistan, a teenage hacker has a strange interaction with a mysterious voice.
Well, we all know what’s going on: of course Archos takes over the world’s robots and other smart technology, and the war against the humans begins.
It would be easy to dismiss Robopocalypse as a movie novelization inexplicably published before its parent movie was filmed. It certainly doesn’t have the depth of, say, Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy. However, it’s a cracking good story, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, and I think Analog readers will enjoy it.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Del Rey, 393 pages, $7.99 (paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
Genre: Man and Machine, Media SF
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Another movie novelization, another Transformers story. But this one is by Peter David, who writes both comics and science fiction, and is an old hand at this stuff. His novelizations always add to the source material, and this book is no exception.
As I said when reviewing Transformers: Exodus in last November’s issue, we have to start with a few words about the names. Decepticons, Megatron, the planet Cybertron—the authors are stuck with them. Just take a deep breath and try to get over it.
This one is a lot of fun. It starts with the truth about the Apollo program: despite what the world believes, Armstrong and Aldrin had a secret mission on the Moon. They were sent there to explore an alien starship that crashed in 1961. They brought back some of the alien tech that they found there.
Curtain up in the present day. Sam Witwicky, human friend of the Autobots, meets British scientist Carly Spencer and immediately falls in love. But there’s more than love on the agenda: the ship that crashed on the Moon was a Transformer vessel, the evil Decepticons have learned of its cargo, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.
Fortunately, the ship also carried the long-lost Autobot leader Sentinel Prime. If anyone can help Sam and Carly defeat the Decpticons, it’s Sentinel.
What follows is a wild series of adventures, enlivened by Peter David’s ever-present sense of humor. David has the voices of his characters down pat and he never belittles or ridicules the source material. If you’re in the mood for a rollicking good tale of battling giant robots, this is the book for you.
The Highest Frontier
Tor, 416 pages, $25.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Man and Machine, Media SF
The Highest Frontier
Up until now, my very favorite first line of a science fiction novel has been from Alan Dean Foster’s 1982 book Nor Crystal Tears: “It’s hard to be a larva.” However, I think Joan Slonczewski has Foster beat. Here’s the first line of The Highest Frontier:
“The space lift rose from the Pacific, climbing the cords of anthrax bacteria.”
With a start like that, how could you not want to read this book?
Joan Slonczewski, with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, teaches both biology and science fiction at Kenyon College in Ohio. In six previous novels in the 1980s and 1990s, she’s established a reputation as a respected writer of hardcore novels that combine cutting-edge biology and genetics, gender issues, and rigorous extrapolation. She’s no stranger to the pages of Analog; her 1998 novel The Children Star was serialized here.
The Highest Frontier is her first novel since 2000, and that’s a lot more than 11 years too long. Fortunately, this one is well worth the wait.
Ostensibly, The Highest Frontier is a coming of age story. In 2108, Jennifer Ramos Kennedy is off to college—specifically, Frontera College, the first orbital college. Jenny goes to school, has various adventures and meets various people, and emerges at the end of the book as a changed woman.
Right. And King Lear is the story of a family disagreement.
The Highest Frontier is a tour de force, a full-immersion experience of a strange and bizarre world. This is science fiction for the thinking reader, the reader who’s willing to pay attention and put things together, the reader who doesn’t need everything explained at once or all details instantly spelled out.
Take those space-traveling cords of anthrax bacteria, for example. They aren’t explained until the next chapter, and then only in a two-sentence throwaway. That’s enough, though. An intelligent reader doesn’t need any more—and besides, by then there are plenty of other wonders to marvel at.
And wonders there are, by the armful. Jenny’s world is one of climate change gone mad: the center sections of North America are uninhabitable, nations are warring over newly ice-free land in Antarctica, and orchids grow in upstate New York. An invasive alien plant, which lives on ultraviolet and emits cyanide, is spreading across the continent. Taxpayers have been replaced by taxplayers, as the Balkanized government supports itself with revenue from casino games. Genetic manipulation is the norm—most of Jenny’s friends have facial features cultured from Paul Newman.
Jenny herself is from a rich, political family, related both to the legendary Kennedys and the leaders of the State of Cuba. She lives almost constantly in the public eye; what she says, wears, and eats are all determined by the polls. In this world, debates between Presidential candidates are considered less important than those between their spouses, and untied shoelaces can lose an election.
On top of all this, there’s been a revolution in technology: biology, not physics, is the root of most products in Jenny’s world. Cultured amyloids are the building blocks, with DNA providing the blueprints for everything from chairs and tables to houses to space habitats.
This kind of science fiction—where the reader is thrown, sink-or-swim, into a wild and unfamiliar world—is enormously hard to carry off. The writer must be a master juggler, keeping all the balls moving and all the plates spinning while simultaneously maintaining the patter that keeps the audience interested. One slip—one plot complication too many, one weird detail in excess, one too many bizarre characters—and the whole thing can come crashing down in a wreckage of reader confusion.
Not to worry, though—Slonczewski is a master juggler indeed, and The Highest Frontier is great science fiction.
Let’s just hope it’s not another decade until her next book.
Fuzzy Ergo Sum
Pequod Press, 299 pages, $38.00 (hardcover)
Kindle: $7.99 (e-book)
Series: Fuzzies 6
Genre: Alien Beings
Fuzzy Ergo Sum
Lately there’s been something of a vogue for posthumous sequels to classic SF works. (This sort of thing happens every few decades, often when the economy turns sour and publishers are looking for “sure things” that don’t require massive payments to living big-name authors.)
H. Beam Piper’s original 1962 novel Little Fuzzy is one of the most beloved books in the field. And since Piper and his heirs weren’t careful about the arcane copyright registration procedures of the time, the book is now in the public domain (i.e.: anyone can write a sequel without owing Piper’s heirs one red cent).
This isn’t the first Little Fuzzy sequel; the history of the series is convoluted at best. Piper himself wrote one direct sequel, Fuzzy Sapiens (1964). Much later, Ace Books continued the series with Fuzzy Bones by William Tuning (1981). Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey by Ardath Mayhar (1982) retells the original story from the viewpoint of the alien Fuzzies.
Subsequently, a lost manuscript for a third Fuzzy novel was discovered among Piper’s papers; it was published in 1984 as Fuzzies and Other People. The events of this book contradicted those in Fuzzy Bones (of course), so the latter book is considered as part of an alternate universe.
To make matters even more confusing, by the time you read this Tor will have published Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, which is supposed to “reboot” the whole Little Fuzzy universe and start over from the beginning.
And where does Fuzzy Ergo Sum fit in? It picks up where Fuzzies and Other People left off, continuing the story of explorer Jack Halloway (who discovered the Fuzzies), CEO Victor Grego, and Little Fuzzy himself. It’s been a quiet few years on the peaceful planet Zarathustra, but now a new bureaucrat touches down on an unexplained mission. Then Zarathustra’s worst criminal escapes from jail, the Chief Prosecutor is kidnapped, and the Fuzzies and their human friends have more than enough problems to deal with.
Of all the commissioned sequels, Wolfgang Diehr’s most captures the voice of H. Beam Piper. One gets the feeling that he is a fan of Piper, and he’s also a good enough writer to pull off the right mix of homage and originality.
At $38.00 the hardcover is pretty steep, but the e-book is well worth the asking price.
Well, that’s it for this issue. Until next time, may all your encounters with robots—giant or otherwise—be good ones.
Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna and A Voice in Every Wind. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com. Genre and series information is based on listings at www.readersadvice.com.
"The Reference Library" copyright © 2011, Don Sakers