American Academy of Political and Social Science

The Artificial Alien: Transformations of the Robot in Author(s): Morton Klass Reviewed work(s): Source: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 470, : Factories, Future Workers (Nov., 1983), pp. 171-179 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1044811 . Accessed: 19/08/2012 21:20

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http://www.jstor.org ANNALS, AAPSS, 470, November1983

The ArtificialAlien: Transformationsof the Robot in Science Fiction


ABSTRACT:The robot, though a relativelyrecent arrival in the real world, has been a subjectof interestin literature-primarily,though not exclusively,science fiction-for most of this century.It is possibleto note significanttransformations in perceptionsof, and attitudestoward, the robot during this period by reviewingthe literature.Thus the earliest robots are flesh and blood creations, and are perceivedas potentially inimicalin a numberof ways. Overtime the robot becomesa mechanical equivalentof humansand takes on many but not all of the attributesof aliens: interestinglythe one most threateningalien attributein Western perception-that of sexual threat-is not accordedthe robot. Insteadthe robot is perceivedas the perfect and perpetualservant, though with a distinctpotential for danger.It mightmake humans superfluous in certain areas,but if humanscan manageto preventthat, the literatureimplies, they will rejoicein a human-equivalentservant and companion. This articleis of possibleinterest to those in the fields of the anthropologyof work,anthro- pology and literature, research, and ethnic relations.

Morton Klass has taught anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, since 1965, and has been director of the Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University, since 1982. He received his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1955 and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1959, and has taught at Bennington College. His research interests and numerous publica- tions pertain to South Asian society and culture, particularly stratification, culture change, anthropological theory, and change and modernization.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was read at the 1982 meetings of the American Anthropolo- gical Association, Washington, D.C., and was published in the journal Cultural Futures Research, 7 (1983). Reprinted by permission.


HErobot-themanufacturedequiva- only as a provisionalsolution, for the T lentof the human-is almosthere. questionsremain to be answered.Is the Thereare those in fact who wouldclaim robot a only, and never any- that it has alreadyarrived and that quite thing else?Suppose it were constructed a few peopleare currently engaged in the of livingtissues, by geneticengineering? process of adjusting to its presence. Suppose, whateverits composition, it There is another argument, however, could somehow reproduce itself? Or one reflectedin this article, that in an does the term imply the issue not so importantsense manufacturedequiva- much of constructionand composition lents of human have been with us for but ratherof human-likeappearance? In most of this centuryif not longer and other words, is it a robot becauseit has that thereis a substantialbody of litera- the equivalentof a humanbrain, or of turedealing, speculatively and varyingly human-likeappendages, or because it but still significantly,with the implica- moves or communicateslike a human? tions, opportunities,and problemsin- Would it still be a robot if it were herentin the associationof humansand enclosed in a featurelessbox? Or is the the manufacturedequivalents of hu- term "robot"intended to reflect some mans. sort of intellectualcapacity? Might we "Manufacturedequivalents of hu- call any programmedor programmable mans" is admittedlyan awkwardway machine a robot or should we reserve of puttingit, but it does have its uses. I the term for the machinethat can pro- emphasize the word "equivalent"be- gram itself, that can learn, that can cause the termintroduces an important think?Or it is all of the above,or at least anthropologicaldimension, that of the many, in some kind of combination? alien-the personwho in manysocieties Most of these questions, and many is viewed as not of us, not truly human related ones, have been pursuedin the butonly an equivalentof thetrue human. voluminousliterature of sciencefiction The views held in a given society of the during the past half century.They be- nature of the alien may be quite com- come suddenly of anthropologicalin- plex. The alien may be simultaneously terest, however, once we ask how our scorned and feared, for example, or society has respondedto the presence- consideredboth nonhuman-say, non- if only fictional-of robots as aliens, as marriageable-and yet very human-- human-equivalents.The anthropologist sexually quite desirable.It is certainly will wantto knowthe particularways in legitimate,therefore, for the anthropol- which the robot is perceivedas equiva- ogist to inquireinto the extent to which lent to humans,and the ways it is not. the manufacturedequivalent of a human Afterall the alienis knownto all human has reflectedthe particularperceptions societies,but thereis considerablevaria- of the alien that is characteristicof tion from one to anotherabout the sup- Europe-derivedsocieties. posed characteristicsor attributesof the I also emphasizethe word"manufac- alien-that human/nonhuman. Is the tured"because it is the most satisfactory robot, for example,marriageable or just solution I could find for the rather sexuallydesirable? This is not a flippant knotty problem of defining what is question: we shall see that it is worth meant by "robot." I intend it, however, pursuing. ROBOT IN SCIENCE FICTION 173

Some readers might observe with have to say that they are machinesthat impatiencethat most of the foregoing look, and to a great extent act, like questions become irrelevantif we but humans. turn our attentionto the actualcontem- Capek'srobot, in fact, was remark- poraryindustrial robot: unquestionably ably similarto Mary Shelley'screature a machine, and a particularkind of in her famous novel, , or machine, with specific capacities and the Modern Prometheus, written limitations. I would argue, however, approximately 100 years earlier, first that it is preciselyfor this reasonthat a publishedin 1817.2Why then do we not, brief review of the fictional history of at least retroactively,refer to Shelley's the robot becomes a useful exercise. creatureas a robot? Further,why did From its first appearance, the term sciencefiction writersof mid-century- "robot"has undergonea seriesof trans- obviously fully aware of their debt to formations, though no living-non- Capek for the term-proceed to trans- fictional-human had actually form the robot into a sentient, vaguely encounteredone of the entitiesencom- ,but neverthelessthoroughly passed by the term. It follows then that mechanicalmachine? Still further,let us an analysisof thesetransformations will note that this remarkablechange was illuminate what people find attractive fully endorsedby the readersof science about robots-about even the notion of fiction and ultimatelyby our society at robots-and what they find disturbing large, that latter endorsement being or even frightening. reflectedin the recentappearance among us of actual that are every- ?APEK'S ROBOT wherecalled robots. AND SHELLEY'S CREATURE I would arguethat thesetwo issues- The term was introduced to the the apparentreluctance to referto Mary creatureas a and the world with the Shelley's robot, English-speaking pro- swift transformationof the robot in duction in 1922 of Karl Capek'splay, sciencefiction and popular usage from a R. U.R. (Rossum 's Universal Robots),' and is derivedfrom the Slavic root for flesh-and-blood being to a thing of metal, and much "work"or "worker."Let us observe, glass, plastic-are very relatedto each other. Examiningthem therefore,that in Capek'splay the robots together us with areplayed by humanactors; they are not provides important insights. machinesof any kind, but ratherproto- Mary Shelley's creature was, one plasmic beings that not only resemble might argueto begin with, actuallythe but are supposedto resembleordinary firstandroid to in fiction,not the humanbeings. differfrom appear They humans, first robot. The term ""came however,in a numberof ways-perhaps into use the 1930sin sciencefic- most,significantly in that they are not during born but are manufactured.Thus if we tion to denote protoplasmiccreations, of the can call them machinesat all we would kind Shelley and Capek had de- scribed, or at least beings, whatever 1. R. U.R. (Rossum's UniversalRobots), trans. Paul Silver (Garden , NY: Doubleday, Page, 2. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus 1923). (New York: Airmont, 1963). 174 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY

their composition, capable of passing potentially, replace humans. That be- undersuperficial if not thoroughexam- comes the centralissue of the play, and ination as humans.The science fiction thereforein this respect&apek's robot writerand editor Lesterdel Rey has in exactly resemblesthe machinethat goes fact suggested that 6apek's "artificial by that name in the factory in Detroit, men would now be called androids."3 and the term is appropriatein both NeverthelessI would suggestthat tap- contexts. ek's "artificialman," though it looked Capek'sconcern, let us observe,was like what was later to be called an not the Faustianquestion at all-that is, android,was in importantways the first actions leadingto an individual'sdam- robot, the fictional forerunnerof the nation. His concern, rather,was what machinesthat go by that name in mod- mightbe termedthe neo-Faustianques- ernfactories. On the otherhand I would tion: can a society as a whole aspireto have no objectionto callingMary Shel- the forbidden, can it set its collective ley'screature an android.There is a dis- foot on a path that will endanger its tinction here worth making, and it is collective,or Durkheimian,soul? This is interestingthat it is madein the subtitles a recurrentquestion in the literatureof of the very two worksin question. this century, of course, and the path most commonly viewed with trepida- THE NEO-FAUSTIAN tion as the one leading to perditionis QUESTION that of industrialization,even more spe- cifically that of line MaryShelley subtitled her book The assembly produc- tion. Fromthis R. U.R. takes Modern Prometheus. Her concern quite perspective its place suchworks as Robert clearly was the tragedyinherent in the alongside conflict betweenhuman and Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise- aspiration how we the divine interdiction.There are echoes of destroyed machines and found God-and most Genesis in her work, and of the Faust particulary Aldous Brave New World.4 :we are askedto contemplatethe Huxley's In of the humanwho daresto do that Huxley'snovel, for example,we knock plight the which the have forbidden or at tops off our crossesto convertthem gods into Ts-as in Ford's Model least reservedfor themselves,and who Henry T. Havingthus damnedour- therebyendangers his soul. On the other symbolically selves, we serve the demonic handthe key wordin 6apek's subtitle- by genetically humans Rossum 's Universal Robots-may well to fit it. In R. U.R. we do the be universal.Why universal?Presuma- exactly same but humans bly because, though are thing, by replacing they factory with workersmanufactured in the fac- productions,these robots are versatile; tory itself. they can perform any industrialtask. Sciencefiction writers and readersof Sincein this regardthey are like humans, the 1930sand 1940s,however, exhibited it follows that they can, ultimately or 4. Watch the North Wind Rise (New York: Creative Age Press, 1949);the novel was originally 3. The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976- published in England as Seven Days in New . The Subculture History ofa (New York: Garland, Brave New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 87. 1968) was first published in 1932. ROBOT IN SCIENCE FICTION 175 little of technology. Rather it was Indeed this entire series of stories by the common belief of this genre that Asimov, originally published between technology and science, or at least the 1940 and 1950, may in part be inter- practitioners thereof, had the capacity preted as a conscious and direct con- to solve our-then-current problems, frontation with the dilemma underlying cope with future ones, and thus ulti- the neo-Faustian question, Will the mately usher in some form of Golden robot-the sentient universal machine- Age.5 There is no single theme that ultimately destroy us, or destroy every- encompasses all of science fiction, of thing that makes life worth living? Or course, but this confidence that humans will we be able to remain in control, could cope with the problems posed by keeping the robot forever in subjection, science and technology was certainly as our servant? Asimov, like many other pervasive in the literature, and so was an science fiction writers of the period, was awareness of what I have called the neo- obviously aware of the supposed threat Faustian question. In the last of his that was, or would be, posed by the robot stories, -one of the appearance of robots among us, but in most well-known and influential writers his work he argued that humans would of science fiction-has a character say, find a way to retain their dominance over the machine. The symbol of his The Machineis only a tool after all, which solution, and of his confidence in con- can help humanityprogress faster by taking someof the burdens... off its back.The task tinuing human hegemony, was his set of of the human brain remains what it has laws, the "Three " to alwaysbeen; that of discoveringnew data to be implanted in every robot at the time be analyzed,and of devisingnew concepts to of manufacture: be tested .... These reactionaries. .. claim 1. - A robot not a the Machinerobs man of his soul. I notice may injure humanbeing, allowa human that menare still at a in our or, throughinaction, beingto capable premium come to harm. society;we still need the man who is intelli- 2. - A robotmust obey the ordersgiven it gentenough to thinkof the properquestions by to ask.6 human beings except where such orders would conflictwith the First Law. 3. - A robot must 5. In his study of an early and influential protectits own existence science fiction organization, , a as long as such protectiondoes not conflict leading science fiction writer and editor, quotes with the First or Second Law.7 Donald A. Wollheim, another well-known editor, on the views of some of the science fiction aficio- THE ROBOT AS SERVANT nados of the mid-1930s: "[Will] Sykora believed The in other must that science-fiction was going to lead somehow- robot, words, or-other to some great-I-don't-know-what. And become and must remain the servant of he had a good precedent for it, because [Hugo] the human. This theme-the robot as Gernsback [the first science fiction editor] was permanent and perpetual servant of the same kind of science could writing thing-how humans, all in the save the world, and so on. And I remember the despite improvements manufacture of robots and all declines time [Forest J.] Ackerman coined a slogan, 'Save Humanity with Science and Sanity."' Knight, The in human capacities-is expressed again Futurians (New York: John Day, 1977), pp. 13-14. and again in the science fiction of the 6. From a story first published in 1950, re- printed in I, Robot (New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1970), pp. 187-88. 7. Ibid, p. 6. 176 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICANACADEMY middle of the century. In Clifford Sim- electronic or organic-loyal to human ak's celebrated City series (1952),8 one beings?'0 robot a sort of mechanical servant, Has the wheel then come full circle in Jeeves, serves humans for thousands of 50 years? Are we not hearing in Heinlein years, at times humbly, and at times as echoes of Capek? The robot is, or can nurse, teacher, or even keeper, but always be, the servant of the human, but if we intrinsically as a servant. In other words, once suspend as irrelevant our pious one response to the neo-Faustian di- assumption of eternal human hegemony lemma that could be found in many do we not see a lurking beneath science fiction works at danger mid-century the metal surface of our servant? Sup- was, in effect, "Yes, the robot is a poten- pose one day it becomes abruptly no tial threat, and a serious one, but humans longer "loyal to human beings." After are masters of their fate and will engi- all, as Heinlein should it be? neer the robot so that it will never says, why get One reason for its is out of control. The human will remain loyalty, perhaps, that we humans seem to have developed the robot's master and the robot forever, an affection for the robot. It is the affec- will remain the eternal servant."9 tion of a superordinate for a permanent Some might argue that this is in its underling, perhaps, or the affection we way as theological a position as the neo- would show to a pet. Indeed the roles Faustian question that provoked it. Theo- permitted the robot in science fiction are logical issues to one side, there is of remarkably restricted: the robot may be course a fundamental problem here, a servant, as we have seen, but appar- carefully avoided by Asimov but ex- ently never an employee. And, although pressed by a character in a recent novel we see in the robot a potential threat to by another major writer of science fic- our well-being, that threat is almost tion, Robert A. Heinlein: never a sexual one, despite the fact that When I was a student, I read some classic sexual threat does customarily charac- stories about humanoidrobots. They were terize the alien in Europe-derived soci- charmingstories and many of them hinged eties. on somethingcalled the lawsof robotics,the I suggest, in fact, that this last notion of whichwas that the robots had key omission-the absence of any percep- builtinto an them operationalrule that kept tion of the robot as a sexual threat- them from harming human beings either played an important part in the trans- directlyor throughinaction. It was a won- formation of the robot in literature from derful basis for fiction ... but in practice, an into to how could you do it? Whatcan make a self- infernal danger something aware, nonhuman, intelligent organism- which we respond with pleasure and even affection.

8. City (New York: Gnome Press, 1952), a ROBOTVERSUS ALIEN collection of stories first from 1944 published Is the issue a ludicrous one? After all, through 1951. 9. Harry Bates examined some implications of one might argue, a machine-however this curious assumption in his classic "Farewell to the Master," Astounding Science Fiction, Oct. 10. Friday (New York: Holt, Rinehart and 1940. Winston, 1982), p. 96. ROBOT IN SCIENCE FICTION 177 sentient-normally lacks the fundamen- he goes on to record that men of both tal equipment for the sexual encounter. sides joined in the game enthusiastically. It cannot rape or be raped, it cannot This Herodotean conviction-most even entice or beguile. While this is true, particularly that aliens will find our and of course contributes to the view of women sexually attractive and will the robot as asexual or even nonsexual, attempt to carry them off-apparently it is also true that such deficiencies do remains very much with us; it is certainly not in other cases necessarily impede the to be found in science fiction, at least on ascription of sexual threat to aliens in the more lurid magazine covers of mid- Western, or Europe-derived, societies, century. Again and again we are given a particularly in popular legend and representation of a tentacled bug-eyed literature. monster carrying off a struggling, half- The dragon St. George slew wanted naked, human female, while Perseus-of- only virgin and nubile females, so its the-future,raygun in hand, comes daunt- appetite could not have been solely gus- lessly to her rescue. There were indeed tatory, and the same thing must be said covers on which rogue robots engaged of the sea monster encountered by Per- in the same practice-for which, after seus when he rescued Andromeda. If we all, they were at least as well equipped as cannot know for certain what King the typical bug-eyed monster-but it Kong intended to do with Fay Wray would seem that such covers were much when he had a moment free from the rarer. It is possible they simply did not attentions of giant snakes and biplanes, sell as well. What I am proposing is that still we are in no doubt that his inten- the robot-though often perceived as tions were as dishonorable as those of alien and dangerous-was nevertheless the bull that kidnapped Europe. rarely perceived as constituting a sexual The alien male may be a monster, but threat. This is significant, I would argue, that does not prevent him from wanting because in Western society the alien is to rape our women-it merely makes his commonly seen as a source of both sex- desires more awful. Still "our"males are ual threat and its converse, sexual at- supposed to be sexually attracted to traction. alien females. So, anyway, argues The robot as a sex object does occur Herodotus, variously considered the in science fiction, but only rarely. An Father of History, of Anthropology, example of such an occurrence is Lester and of Lies. He opens his history of the del Rey's story, "Helen O'Loy"(1938).12 Persian Wars with the suggestion that This is the story of a man who falls the continual conflicts between the deeply in love with a female robot-that Greeks and the peoples of Asia Minor is, a sentient machine cunningly covered could be attributed to the kidnapping on the outside with plastic and rubber to and raping of each other's women: "Ac- convey the appearance of a female hu- cording to the Persians ... the Phoeni- man. Though often referred to as a clas- cians began the quarrel," he notes," but sic of science fiction, "Helen O'Loy"

11. The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson (New York: Lincoln MacVeagh/ Dial 12. "Helen O'Loy," Astounding Science Fic- Press, 1928), p. 1. tion, Dec. 1938. 178 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY gave rise to no subgenre; it spawned no explores in depth the feelings of bitter- imitators. ness such creations might be expected to Indeed even Mary Shelley's creature, harbor; he even suggests some of the lonely as it was, did not seek the arms of contemptuous terms-"uties," "wom- humans, and Capek's robots may have bats"-they might use to express their killed humans and sought to replace resentment of those born in normal bio- them, but they never violated humans logical fashion. And if Asimov's "Laws sexually, nor did they seek to make love of Robotics" reflect an effort to pro- to them. Perhaps then we may interpret gram human morality and ethics into del Rey's Helen O'Loy as still another the machines, some writers-such as robot servant, but one that provided a in the tale of Adam Link rather special service, one not of a kind (1939)'5-suggest that if a machine were that most people, or at least most wri- to be intelligent and self-aware, would it ters, expect from robots. not also of itself be concerned with right It is perhaps worth observing, how- and wrong? ever, that Helen O'Loy, machine though she is, clearly reciprocates the love of her CONCLUSION human husband.'3 From the time of The robot in science fiction then was Mary Shelley herself, writers have found an alien and as a themselves drawn to the minds and feel- portrayed at first as threat, but the was perceived as ings of human-equivalents. Is such a danger an economic that creature lonely? Frightened? Resentful? primarily one-apart, from the The Does it feel the alienation of being in a is, theological danger. robot drive us from our and world it never made, but which made it? may jobs otherwise our economic well- , in a poignant story, destroy it was felt; it even threaten to "Down among the Dead Men" (1955),14 being, may destroy the world as we know it; it may endanger our collective soul. But we 13. Though del Rey called her a robot, Helen have never believed it would dishonor or well be termed an of O'Loy might android, us, we have always course-a constructed creature that can as a corrupt something pass assumed that other aliens wanted most human unless one accidentally peels back the rubber mask and reveals the gears and bolts of all to do. Perhaps not surprisingly beneath. Such a creature is indeed a fictional then we seem to be able to live with object of human sexual fears and desires. This whatever threat, economic or theologi- theme is explored extensively in Heinlein's novel the robots we do not note and in a different in cal, represent; Friday (see 10); very way exhibit horror or or even William Tenn's "Down among the Dead Men," revulsion, very Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1954, rpt. in Of All much trepidation. Possible Worlds (New York: , Perhaps this is because science fiction in works. In a 1955); and indeed many other way writers and readers began to feel that, then we robot had two might say that Capek's despite the potential robots offspring: the one we call robot and view as both dangers, servant and possible economic threat, and the one actually held out a promise: not that came to be called android. Since the latter can simply-if we are lucky and smart and pass as human and therefore move unnoticed among us, it can indeed easily become a sexual threat. 14. See note 13. 15. "I, Robot," , Jan. 1939. ROBOTIN SCIENCEFICTION 179 careful-to serve us all its days, but to be larly acceptable or desirable precisely a companion to us in the universe, one because the sexual element is missing. more meaningful than any animal com- In any case, there is something that panion, someone to share and even draws us to the robot, despite all our assume our ethical burdens. The robot, I fears. We would like to embrace it-I have noted, is never portrayed as an say "it" advisedly-even though we do employee but rather as a servant-if we worry occasionally whether it will be are fortunate, as a faithful servant. Per- necessary in the end to destroy it before haps such a companionship is particu- it destroys us.