Saturday, December 19, 2015

2. Robots R Us

A recent post discussed an early tale of robots running amok, Edmond Hamilton’s, 1926 novelette The Metal Giants, originally published in Weird Tales.  The word robot was still fairly new at that time, having been coined just a few years before by Karel Čapek in his 1921 science fiction play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).   However, creatures—that is creations—resembling what we now call robots and androids began appearing as early as 600 BCE in folklore and mythology.  Conceivably the basic template for future robotics may have originated in something like the Biblical story of the creation of Eve:

But for Adam no suitable helper was found.  So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh.  Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.  (Genesis 2:20-22)

Thus robots can be seen as a small subset of a more general category, an archetype really: the effort to bring life to an artificial image through magic and weird science.  Recall that Adam was also made from inanimate material, common dust, created because “there was no man to work the ground,” and presumably formed in an image resembling that of his creator.  Since then, humans, like robots, many behaving like crazed automatons, have been “out of control”.  Mary Shelley’s monster, assembled in a 19th century laboratory from dead flesh, (“the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials”), and revived by an application of electricity shambles through a cautionary tale that has influenced robot stories ever since.   When humans engage in such manufacture the process involves unavoidable hubris and idolatry—a bad mix, one that almost always produces misery and terror. 

Robots and androids become more prevalent in weird fiction of the late 1800s and early 1900s, probably spurred on by the growth of industrialized society.  Their components become less flesh-like and more electro-mechanical at the beginning of the 20th century, taking on the iconic robot form that we recognize today.  But the idea is ancient, pre-industrial and enduring.  Our fascination with robots continues today—our best shot so far at emulating the divine in its ability to fashion things that move about on their own.   

One of the first short stories in English to describe what would later be called a robot is the classic short story by Ambrose Bierce, Moxon’s Master (1893).  Bierce opens the story with a spirited argument between the narrator and his friend Moxon.  At issue is the nature of consciousness.  Moxon wants to expand the definition to include plant life, crystals, and especially machines—“…you may be able to infer their convictions from their acts,” Moxon says. 

The narrator, increasingly aggravated by his friend’s outrageous notions, wonders about Moxon’s health and sanity.  They are arguing just outside Moxon’s machine shop, which no one is allowed to enter.  Moxon occasionally glances nervously at the door of this room.  Both narrator and reader are by now wondering what is in that machine shop.  Here is Moxon’s underlying theory about the origins of life and consciousness, as applied to mechanical entities.  Moxon believes that

“…all matter is sentient, that every atom is a living, feeling, conscious being…There is no such thing as dead, inert matter: it is all alive; all instinct with force, actual and potential; all sensitive to the same forces in its environment and susceptible to the contagion of higher and subtler ones residing in such superior organisms as may be brought into relation with, as those of man when he is fashioning it into an instrument of his will.  It absorbs something of his intelligence and purpose—more of them in proportion to the complexity of the resulting machine and that of its work.”

This is a marvelous and troubling insight, and one that is relatively easy to demonstrate.  Many readers have no doubt experienced days when inanimate objects appeared to conspire against them: computers and other appliances that suddenly and for no apparent reason refuse to obey, a car that will not turn over, common objects that jump from one’s grasp or suddenly fall from the shelf, or lose themselves in a drawer somewhere the moment they are needed most.  It is the seemingly inanimate matter of everyday life organizing itself to thwart and humiliate us, to go its own way, to make us look foolish and powerless.

Moxon offers a final insight about the nature of thought:  “Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm.”  Perhaps all things that move are conscious, because movement is rhythmic.  The narrator mulls this idea over in his mind as he departs Moxon’s house in exasperation.  He soon returns, curious and intrigued by the notion.  What was built in that secret machine shop?

This being a story by Ambrose Bierce, known for his misanthropy and cynicism, readers can expect at least one horrific murder unredeemed by moralizing or sentimentality or concern for conventional justice.  Bierce is best known for his often anthologized horror classic The Damned Thing (1893) and the tone of Moxon’s Master is similar.   

Moxon’s robot is still quite humanoid in form.  He—it?—is gorilla shaped, has hair, wears a hat and tunic, but gives away his true nature by the sound he makes:  “a low humming or buzzing…unmistakably a whirring of wheels.” The automaton’s behavior and motivation, even a shrug of its shoulders at one point, are all too human, though exaggerated by his mechanical strength.  It will come as no surprise that Bierce’s jaded view of humanity is mirrored in the later actions of Moxon’s mechanical creation.

Moxon’s Master can be found in Can Such Things Be? (re-printed in 1990), a collection of Bierce’s stories that contains other representative works like The Damned Thing, The Death of Halpin Frayser, and The Middle Toe of the Right Foot, among others.  Also present in that volume is Bierce’s An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1887), a brief piece thought to be an inspiration for Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895).  Bierce’s realistic style and cynical tone anticipates that of much contemporary horror literature.


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