Robot Sci-Fi is going backward

February 16, 2017

You probably know the story of where the word “robot” came from: it was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R., or Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play tells the robot ur-story, in which people build robots, the robots are too human, so they rebel and kill everybody. It’s an artifact of industrial-age Marxism, and has been told and retold ad-puking-nauseum. Isaac Asimov was already tired of it by the 1940’s.

I just saw the pilot of Humans. It’s still alive, 97 years later.

humans2

In science fiction, non-human intelligences like robots or aliens are either going to be stand-ins for humans… or they aren’t. If you want to tell a story about people, just use people. Don’t make them aliens or machines or demons, because the point of writing about those things is to show how different, how non-human, those entities could be. A story that does this well can teach us about ourselves by revealing to the reader what humans are not.

Asimov has been the grandmaster of robot fiction for 70 years, and his title is safe. All he did was write stories in which the robots were tools. Doesn’t sound profound, but if you haven’t read his I, Robot collection, you should. You’ll see what I mean.  Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 explores how an extraterrestrial civilization a billion years ahead of us might spend its time from day to day, and Larry Niven’s short stories showed aliens just as smart as people, but with wildly non-human psychology.

Since its high-point in the 1940’s, robot fiction has gotten big-screen flashy (Terminator, Battlestar Galactica) in its visuals, but has regressed back to the same tired worker’s rebellion trope born in 1927. Here is an English-language two-hour audiobook version of R.U.R. Click around and listen to some of the dialog. The style is dated, but you’ve heard every single plot point before.

I named my short story collection after the robot story in it: “Turing’s Revenge.” The title refers to Alan Turing’s test for artificial intelligence. That test should give you a hint about whether your robots are going to rise up and kill you or not. No spoilers, but I put my own spin on the robot rebellion trope.

To help me get over how much I didn’t like Humans, I’ve decided to give away a bunch of Kindle downloads of Turing’s Revenge and Other Stories. If you have an Amazon account, live in the United States, and would like a free story about robots (plus stories about aliens, a cyborg assassin, etc.), email me.

The official contest is over, but I have a few spare ebooks left.  Good luck!

 

 

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