The Stepford Historian

helm as robot

A review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: An Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  Part 3, “robots”.  First broadcast on BBC2 8th December 2014.

Watching and trying to make sense of the third part of Tomorrow’s Worlds it occurred to me that I might be trying to make more sense of it than I should.  This was, after all, mainly a series of clips from Hollywood blockbusters and a few TV shows peppered with the odd reference to a book where the programmes makers could slot it in.

Over this, a narrative has been created by Dominic Sandbrook, who does not take science fiction (and perhaps history in general) very seriously.  There is no sense that SF has its own development as a genre of literary fiction, and somewhat separately a genre in other media particularly film.  Rather, Dominic deals with SF as entirely a reflection of the world around it.  This is compounded by his adherence to popular history, a coupling in which the popular wins and reduces history to pandering to nostalgia and thus burying the past rather than uncovering it.  For sure we start with a work of literary fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus( 1818)), moving swiftly through the silent film Metropolis (1927) and Forbidden Planet (1956), but the focus is on modern films made in a twenty-three year envelope, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972) Star Wars (1977 onwards), Blade Runner (1982),The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), The Matrix (1999) and AI (2001) along with a little TV (the Six Million Dollar Man (1973 to 1978) and bit of Dr. Who (episodes from 1967 and 2006 or thereabouts) and the second version of Battlestar Galatia (2003-2012).  A Clockwork Orange (a little isolated here, not being about robots and is not placed with a current of SF that looks at the control of people through technology) is dealt with as both book (1962) and film (1971), and there is an honourable mention of Brian Aldiss’s “Super-toys Last All Summer Long” (1969) and a cursory mention of other books that were the basis of films such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which was, very loosely, the basis for Blade Runner.  Beyond Frankenstein, only William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is treated as a book in its own right and even that is dealt with as a teaser for The Matrix.

If I were asked to contribute to a series on SF the first thing that I would do is immerse myself in the historical writing.  The naiveté of Dominic’s comments suggest he has not.  Rather, he appears to have decided in advance on his conclusion (SF reflects the hopes, but more commonly, the anxieties of its time) and then structures and interprets (and shoehorns and edits) everything in that light.  What a decent historian would do is to look at the material and attempt to discern the patterns, development and dynamics in it (or at least borrow someone else’s).  So if one looks at the fantastic new Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley, you would get a clear periodisation (forerunners; 1920-1950, ‘”The days of pulp”; 1950-1970, “The day of the atom: the marvels and peril of science”; 1970-1990, “dark futures”; 1990 onwards, “modern SF”).  One has to argue with any periodisation (that’s the fun of them), but it gives the book a clear framework.  Adam Roberts’ valuable histories too offer a periodisation, although he is mainly concerned with the written word.[1]  There is no hint of such a conceptual framework or idea that SF has developed over time, that it has a history, in Tomorrow’s Worlds.

The programme starts, as it probably has to, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Dominic’s comments on Frankenstein constitute the analytic heart of the programme, or rather portrays the shifting chaos as the programme lurches from one clip to the next without any clear notion of what holds them together.  As he says in the programme, he thinks that Shelley’s theme is “the awful responsibility of creation … the unending tension between man and machine” and  “the extraordinary potential of science and the moral dilemmas implicit in our desire to play God”.  He even thinks that Shelley has an “anti-scientific bias”.  It is easy to get Frankenstein wrong since the creature has become a horror staple (and indeed it is easy to see SF as a sub-genre of horror, particularly if too much emphasis is given to the science fiction horror films, most notably of John Carpenter).

Dominic is right to distance Shelley’s book from the James Whale horror film Frankenstein (1931), a fine film that helped define the horror genre.  It is reasonable to call this SF, the creature is the product of science.  But this is an early SF story, and after its creation there is no more science in the book.  As far as the overall story is concerned it could have been a golem made from clay.  There are other antecedents for robot fiction as this time.  Particularly, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann”(1814) which contains a mechanical women, who goes on to feature in Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman (1881).  The intellectual setting of Shelley’s book is not science, but is part of the radical wave of thought after the French Revolution (her mother who she never knew was Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminists, her father, William Godwin holds a similar seminal position in the history of anarchist thought).  As Ursula Le Guin points out on the programme, Shelley does not judge science, rather she judges Victor Frankenstein.  There is a strong theory that one element of Shelley’s thought was that her husband (the poet Percy Byshe Shelley) refusal to take any interest in their still born child.  More importantly, the theme of the creature as Adam/Satan expelled from Eden by God must be understood in term of Shelley’s probable atheism.  This is a humanist parable about us taking our lives from the gods, it is not simply about one man.  It is not, unfortunately for Dominic who  states that the story has an “anti-science bias”, strongly about the science.

Dominic suggests that there was a surge in interest in robots in the 1920s and that this was fuelled by the mechanisation of industry and the fear amongst workers that they would be displaced.  The problem with this claim is that the evidence that he uses to back it up with is riddled with errors, some inconsequential and some not.  There are two works in the 1920s that Dominic thinks show this fear of the machine becoming manifest in the fear of the robot, Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), the Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.

There are careless errors in what Dominic says about Čapek.  He did not coin the word ‘robot’ but credited his brother and frequent co-writer, Joseph Čapek, who probably first use the word in 1917.  He did not coin it in 1921 (the year the play was first performed) but in 1920 (the year the play was written).[2]  These small errors demonstrate a carelessness with the facts which is not confined to such inconsequential matters.  Particularly, Dominic describes the robots of RUR as “mechanical”, they are in fact artificial organic life forms, which in modern parlance we would consider to be genetically engineered biological life forms.  These are not a response to the development of the production line.  Dominic is not wrong to point out that “robot” means “forced labour”, but there is more to it than that.  As Adam Roberts has pointed out, it comes from a form of Czech feudal servitude that was abolished in 1848.  The name of the company comes from the Czech word for “reason” (rozum).[3]  This is not a dystopian allegory about man being conquered.   The play’s resolution is exactly the robot becoming human and a new Adam and Eve walking out in the world.

Metropolis: (The film itself has a confused history, with the extant prints being a version rewritten and re-edited under the US screenwriter Channing Pollock from 1927, and a heavily censored version of the German release from 1936.  In 2008 a near complete copy of the original film was found in Argentina.  This along with other found archival material was the basis of a near complete restoration of the original film.  If anything, Dominic’s reading of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is even more confused, so much so that I suspect that he has not seen the film.  He talks about the robot being called ‘Maria’, which it is not (in the German film it is referred to the Maschinenmensch).  Maria is a central character in the film, the leader of the workers.  The robot is given the appearance of Maria to mislead the workers.  The false-Maria lead the workers to their destruction, as Dominic suggests, but leads them in to destroying the machinery of Metropolis and the flooding of the underground city where the workers live (the real Maria saves the children from the waters).

The symbolism of the robot in the film not about fear of technology. The robot is modelled on Freder’s mother (the wife of Joh Frederson), Hel.  The builder of the robot, Rotwang, was also infatuated with her.  Thus there is a decidedly Freudian element to Freder’s mother taking the form of the object of his desire.  The robot’s role in leading the workers to destroy the machines is not as an autonomous agent but as the instrument of the will of the owner/ruler/father Joh Federson.   When the workers burn the false-Maria at the end of the film as a witch, exposing its true metallic form, they do not seem particularly interested and see it as more evidence that she was a witch.  Dominic states that “[False] Maria is the embodiment of our fear of the machine”, it is rather the embodiment of this mother, which has be symbolically destroyed before he can consummate his desire for the real Maria.

It is certainly true that the film shows the dehumanising impact of modern production, but this is shown by the relationship between the workers and the machines, with the workers moving mechanically and becoming dominated by the machines.  At one point the hero Freder appears to be crucified on the machine he is operating, and at another point he hallucinates the machines as Moloch, a god that demands child sacrifice, and here consuming the workers.  But the film does not contextualise this as anti-technology, the city of Metropolis is presented as a marvel, but as a critique of class with the workers being banished from these marvels in a subterranean city (the idea had already been use in the Soviet SF film, Aleita: Queen of Mars (1924)).  HG Wells famously attacked the film not being what he considered proper SF but rather carefully researched futurology.  As Tom Gunning has argued, in a certain sense he was right.[4]  The film is present minded, it was a hyper-realistic view of contemporaneous Berlin art, architecture and above all class, as well as being past-minded with the city being built on the catacombs where the workers meet, the cathedral and the visions of death and Moloch that Freder has.  Indeed, Gunning suggests that the central conflict in the film is between modernism and the gothic, between science and magic.[5]

In many ways Metropolis is the opposite of Frankenstein.  In Shelley’s book man must take responsibility as his own creator in a godless world, in Metropolis (particularly in the novel that Thea von Harbou wrote at the same time as the script) Joh Fredersen is not only the father of Freder, and master of the city but he is an old-testament God who wishes to see his city destroyed so his Christ-son can rebuild it with new-testament harmony.  Neither, however, is about robots as symbols of a fear of the machine age.  Similarly, although neither RUR nor Metropolis is particularly left-wing in the views that they put across, both are about societies divided by class (although in the case of Metropolis, this is nothing to do with robots).

Thus, the idea that robots in the 1920s were used as symptoms of people’s mistrust of technology is not substantiated by the two examples that Dominic gives.  Just because he fails to prove the point, this does not mean that it is not true.  So what of other fictional robots of the period, what do they show?

The first twentieth century robot was in Gustav Le Rouge’s series La Conspiration des Milliardaires (1899-1900) which feature an innocent man whose brain is put into a robot after he is guillotined so he can hunt down his (evil) killers.  Then there is Tiktok (a.k.a Tik-Tok), the clockwork ‘machine man’ in L. Frank Baum’s third Oz book Ozma of Oz.[6]  Tiktok is mechanical and without emotion, but is also an absolutely benign servant.

There are less benign stories.  To be sure, in Ambrose Bierce’s short story ‘Moxon’s Master’[7] an automaton chess player strangles its inventor, but the story is very slight and without clear implications.  The author of The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux, wrote two works that featured robot-ish creatures.  La Poupée Sanglante (the Bloody Doll)[8] (1923) and its sequel La machine à assassiner (the murdering machine)[9] (1923) which feature the brain of a framed and executed man in a mechanical body seeking revenge on the guilty.

It was only with the arrival of the “pulp” SF magazines of the 1920s that the robot story began to take off,[10] firstly with Edmond Hamilton ‘The Metal Giants’ (1926).  I don’t know what this story involves, but Hamilton’s most famous robots are the good guys.  In Captain Future (1940-1951) the eponymous hero is aided by a brain-in-a-box, a robot and a synthetic android called Simon, Grag and Otho respectively.  They are the marvels of science used for good.

There are negative portrayals of robots that begin to emerge by 1930.  S. Fowler Wright was a British SF writer who is now little remembered, but was one of the few keeping the tradition going in the inter-war years although unusually for an SF writer he took a negative view of technological progress, and is one writer who fits Dominic’s thesis well.  Many of his stories are apocalyptic, and this is certainly the case with his 1929 short story ‘Automata’.[11]   Here mankind is not simply conquered by machines but ultimately accepts that artificial life is superior as they die out.

The story could go on.  The point is that there is no substance to Dominic’s claim that the dominant view of robots before Asimov was a ‘mistrust of the mechanical’.  Certainly, on the evidence I can muster, the reverse was true.  If there was a distrust, it was of what people would do with machines (Metropolis) but it was common to find the idea that these machines could be a force for good (Captain Future).  Where the machine did destroy man it was often because they were superior, something not confined to machines.  This superiority could also be invaders (War of the Worlds), artificial life-forms (RUR) or mechanical robots (Automata).  But humanity’s defeat at the hands of the robots was not the only story that SF told in this period, or even the main one.

At this point in the programme, Dominic does a flip.  He suggests that after the second world war under the dual influences of the robotophilic writings of Isaac Asimov and the automation of many tasks of household labour in the USA, a much more accepting attitude to robots developed.  Thus, the appearance of the avuncular Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), the servant to the planet’s two occupants, Dr Morbius and his daughter, Altaira.  It is wrong, however, to treat Robby as a prototype for Rosie the robotic maid in The Jetsons (1962-1963).  Robby is armed, although programmed not to harm people in the style of Asimov, although he does disarm some of the characters in the film and is apparently willing to use force to stop them passing an entrance it is guarding.  Aside from a manner styled on a butler, it has no personality and plays no role in the development of the plot of the film.  It is one of Dr. Morbius’s technological wonders, but structurally in the film it is an ornament.

What Robby is, is a robot-servant in the mould of Tiktok in contrast with the self-aware autonomous robots of Asimov and Eando Binder’s Adam Link stories (1939-1942).  Tomorrow’s World does make the perceptive point that Robby was an attempt to make robots less humanoid, but it would have been interesting to have more material on the way that this developed, particularly through their representation in illustrations in the pulps.

The importance of Forbidden Planet for the development of SF in film lies not in its representation of robots but in how the technology interacts with the human character.  Broadly, Forbidden Planet can be considered to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Dr. Morbius and Altaira standing for Prospero and Miranda.  This casts some light on the way that science is used in the film as modern magic.  In The Tempest Prospero is a magician stranded on an island who uses his power to control both a good spirit (Ariel) and a corrupt create (Caliban) who are native to the island.  In Forbidden Planet the spirit Ariel is replaced by Robby.  Where the film departs from The Tempest is that there is no Caliban, rather the evil in the film is the projection of Dr. Morbius’s subconscious by the advanced technology of the planet’s long extinct inhabitants.  Forbidden Planet thus has the same odd mixture of science as magic and Freudian ideas (although these are much less developed in Forbidden Planet).  The robots are a product of this science/sorcery.

In some ways, this places Forbidden Plant in a tradition that stretches back to an early science fiction classic overlooked in this series, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  This story of the unleashing of the repressed bestial wide of Jekyll’s personality has clear parallels to Forbidden Planet.  It is odd that this is not developed in the programme, since it does touch on concerns of altered human states in its discussion of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of it (1972) (these certainly belong in the discussion here, although there is little science in the story, they are dystopian views of a not-too-distant future).  This theme of the control of people in future/parallel society is not developed any further, although an interesting discussion could be had about Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and, perhaps pushing the definition of SF beyond its limit, George Orwell’s 1984.  This is not, I suspect, simply a symptom of the anti-literary bias of this series, but of its anti-political bias.  However, it is a major theme in much SF that the powerful in society might use technology to control us (or already do) and although this is mentioned (Omni Corp in RoboCop), this theme is not developed at all.  But as Per Schelde has argued in his book Androids, Humanoids and Other Folklore Monsters (1993), various forms of corporate power have become the main villains in many modern SF works.

Instead of such a discussion, the programme becomes bogged down in what shape robots are.  It is a little obvious that 3-CPO is modelled on the Maschinenmensch of Metropolis.  What is not spelt out is that Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s designs for the Maschinenmensch drew not on any scientific source, but German art deco sculpture, particularly Rudolf Belling’s Skulptur 23 and Oskar Schlemmer’s Abstract Figur.[12]

We are also told that the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in Silent Running (1972) had non-humanoid robots that inspired R2-D2.  All of this is true, but through this Dominic imposes an entirely fallacious narrative, arguing that because the film’s depiction of robot from 1956 to 1978 has been Robby, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and R2-D2 and 3-CPO, the depiction of robots in films by 1982 had become positively cuddly, and thus the arrival of The Terminator in 1984 presented a shift.  However, there were plenty of evil robots prior to The Terminator’s T-800, even if Dominic sees fit to ignore them.  Even if we look only at films in the 1970s we have robots turning on human’s in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1975); The Stepford Wives (1975) in which the eponymous women are replaced by compliant robots; Demon Seed (1977) in which on A.I. computer imprisons and rapes a women to reproduce; Black Hole (1979) has a human commander and a robot commanding a ship manned by the lobotomised bodies of its previous crew; and Saturn 3 has a homicidal robot on the loose in a space station.[13]  This latter robot looks a lot like the fleshless T-800 seen at the end of The Terminator.

It is simply not the case that robots have ever been universally cuddly, and I think that Dominic is simply talking about one piece of SF he is familiar with, Star Wars, and over-generalising from it.  I would suggest (as a tentative hypothesis rather than a fully supported theory) that Star Wars was part of a movement away from the mechanical Robby the Robot to anthropomorphised beings.  Thus, Tomorrow’s Worlds makes the point that both Douglas Trumbull in Silent Running and George Lucas in Star Wars thought it important to have actors inside the robots.  The implications of this point are not developed, but what it leads to is that even the non-human non-speaking R2-D2 shows human traits.  This desire to make robots more like humans in films is best shown by the move from the cold killing of T-800 in The Terminator to the learning-to-be-human T-800 of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  The evil robot with its emotionless death ray eyes is now has a retro, comic book feel: two of the more recent not examples of robots in film that I can recall being the omnidroids in the Pixar superhero film, The Incredibles (2004) the eponymous robots in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).  I would suggest (still in tentative mode) that this is not part of a move away from dystopian, action or horror SF films, but because organic foe can be darker, slimier and more otherworldly than a shiny, inflexible, lumbering robot.  CGI makes organic beasties easier to represent on the screen.  It is thus one of the more reasonable points that Dominic makes that particularly the androids and cyborgs are now more frequently used to question what it is to be human (or perhaps, what it is to live), but again he over generalises

The narrative that Dominic places around The Terminator is unconvincing in other ways too.  He claims that the overarching intelligence in the future society, SkyNet, is a reflection of the Strategic Defence Initiative (a.k.a  “Star Wars”).  This is certainly possible, SDI was first announced during a speech made by the US President Ronald Reagan in March 1983, while Terminator was scripted in 1982 and 1983.  But the two systems have little in common.  SDI was a proposed early-warning counter missile defence system which many saw as making nuclear war  more likely since it would create the illusion that it was winnable and undermined the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.  The fictional SkyNet put the nukes in the hand of computers to strengthen the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (a similar idea can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1962)).  So Dominic’s linkage of SkyNet and SDI reflected a heightened anxiety about nuclear weapons as the Cold War ratcheted up in the early 1980s.  But again Dominic shows his poor knowledge of SF since the idea of the super-intelligent controlling computer system is an SF trope with a longer pedigree, most famously in Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965).  It is very notable, that Metropolis aside, the series entirely ignores such non-Anglophone SF.

In a rare excursion of looking at a book without a TV or film adaptation, the programme does (rightly) find time for William Gibbon’s Neuromancer.  Again, Dominic finds it necessary to attempt to make SF a reaction to technological change, particular the fear of its rise of digital technology (and confuses the idea of the internet in general, which has been outlined by Arthur C. Clarke in a non-fiction article in 1970) and the idea of cyberspace.  As Gibson himself has commented, the word cyberspace as he used it in the early 1980s was “evocative and essentially meaningless”, it was not a technological predication but a musing about forms of shared consciousness in other realities.[14]  Dominic suggests that Gibson’s great achievement is to write a book that is fundamentally about people, but for me that misses the point about what the best SF does.  It uses a fictional alternate reality (defined by its science, social institutions or even nature) to tell a story that would not be possible without it.  Thus, in Neuromancer, the possibility of consciousness existing in two planes, reality and cyberspace, is a story that could not be told in a naturalistic setting.

The writer who Gibson looks to most as an inspiration in this is William Burroughs, and it is no coincidence that both develop their ideas while taking bucket loads of drugs.  Philip K. Dick, another prolific drug-user,[15] shared some of these concerns with false realities in Time Out of Joint (1959) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).  Sadly, Dick’s body and mind were both ultimately damaged by the drugs, and he came to believe in the literal truth of this false reality, reflected in his difficult (and to my mind broken) late VALIS books (1981).  The work of Burroughs, Dick and Gibson all make the Matrix series seem pretty weak stuff.  But Tomorrow’s Worlds is fixation with the false-SF world of the Hollywood blockbuster, and the programme ends up with a long interview with someone who made the tea on the set of The Matrix (which is very unfair to Owen Paterson who I am sure is a fine artistic director, but really, is that the best they can do?).

Which brings us back to the conclusion of this instalment.  This sums up Dominic’s three themes that he has developed: that science fiction monsters started out as scary (Frankenstein’s creature, false-Maria), became cuddly in the middle (Robby, 3-CPO) before becoming scary again at the other end (The Terminator).  Secondly, this reflected fear of technology in industrialisation in the 1920s, the rise of the digital age in the 1980s but not the nuclear age of the post-war period (which quite contradicts the view that he has expressed elsewhere that people where most fearful of technology at the height of the Cold War).  And lastly, that it is this fear of technology that drives science fiction.  It is this last thought that perhaps we should end on.  Does anyone who has ever read any science fiction believe that its animus is fear of science?  No, rather it is a question of what people and society will do with it.  Again, Dominic’s ignorance of SF seems near complete.

[1] See Adam Roberts, A History of Science Fiction (New edition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2006) and Science Fiction (The New Critical Introduction) (Rutledge: Abingdon, 2005).

[2] ‘Who did actually invent the word “robot” and what does it mean?’, http://Čapek.misto.cz/english/robot.html [accessed 10/12/2014]

[3] Adam Roberts, “Introduction” in Karel Čapek, RUR and War with the Newts (London: Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2011).

[4] Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI, 2000).

[5] Gunning, pp66=67

[6] The book can be read here: https://archive.org/stream/ozmaofozrecordof00baum#page/68/mode/2up [accessed 10/12/2014]

[7] The story can be read at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/MoxoMast.shtml [Accessed 10/12/2014]

[8] Can be read in French) here: http://beq.ebooksgratuits.com/vents/Leroux_La_poupee_sanglante.pdf [accessed 10/12/2014]

[9] Can be read (in French) here: http://www.atramenta.net/lire/la-machine-a-assassiner/23179

[10] For a thorough listing, see Alan Roseanne’s list here: http://my.fit.edu/~rosiene/pulps.pdf

[11] Can be read here: http://www.sfw.org.uk/96automata.shtml [accessed 10/12/2014]

[12] ref

[13] Can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc4R3SOif0g

[14] Scott Thill, ‘William Gibson, Father of Cyberspace, Wire,  17/03/2011, http://www.wired.com/2011/03/0317cyberspace-author-william-gibson-born [Accessed 11/12/2014]

[15] Philip Purser-Halyard, The Drugs Did Work, The Guardian (online), 12/8/2006, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/aug/12/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.philipkdick [accessed 11/12/2014]

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About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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