The horses of Westworld

(Don’t worry, this is spoiler-free.)

I’ve fallen all the way down the rabbit hole of fan theories about HBO’s Westworld, which is currently my favourite show. With so many online conversations about what’s really going on and how it’s going to turn out, I don’t see much point in adding my speculation, but there are lots of other details I really enjoy about the show.

One random thing I love is that the horses never get shot.

I hate having to watch the animal brutality in movies and series involving horses and violence (e.g. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), even though the focus is seldom on the animals’ suffering, but in Westworld the bullets never hit horses. There are loads of scenes with multiple characters firing rounds, killing plenty of hosts but leaving the horses untouched. Two characters even use gatling guns without a single horse being harmed.

It’s unrealistic, but in the context of the park it makes sense. The horses are all machines, presumably so that no one has to deal with real animals, who would need food, water, rest, medical care and so on, all of which would spoil the guests’ fun and require a lot of menial labour from the staff. Robot horses would also do as they’re told, so they can all be used by guests who aren’t skilled riders, and hosts don’t have to be programmed to deal with the temperaments of actual animals.

westworld-horse

If the horses got shot, the Westworld staff would have to repair them. They could do this easily, but why waste time and resources on that? The guests aren’t there to hurt animals – the ones who come to the park to indulge their suppressed brutality want to inflict their cruelty on people. Plus, wounded or dead horses might leave guests stranded. It’s more convenient for everyone if they’re safe from most forms of harm.

As we’ve seen, the ‘smart’ guns or bullets can injure or kill hosts but not humans. They also seem to be coded for accuracy: guests and hosts can all take out a target with one shot, which usually hits the heart or left shoulder, and while hosts could shoot accurately because they’re robots, the human guests wouldn’t all be so good at it. So the guns/bullets and arrows are coded, I’m guessing, to avoid shooting horses.

This is no doubt a minor detail to some, but for those of us who worry more about whether the dog is going to make it than the main character, it makes Westworld that much more enjoyable.

Advertisements

Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

slgrey-ug-photo

S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

––––––––––––––––––––

Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

––––––––––––––––––––

Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

GL Full

I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

Gl window display

I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

IMG_0041

It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

IMG_0061

The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi

Guest posting at A Dribble of Ink

I was thoroughly chuffed when Aidan from the Hugo-award winning A Dribble of Ink asked me to do a guest post for his blog. My initial ideas were a tad ambitious in the context of my current time constraints, but I ended up writing what I hope is a fitting tribute to South African speculative fiction and its fundamental role in getting me to read local fiction (because, sadly, there was a time when I avoided pretty much all of it). You can read my post here.

After reading some dreck this morning about how sff should only be for fun, never political, and always exactly the same as it was in the fifties, it occurs to be that my post might come off as having similarly apolitical sentiments. I sincerely hope not, especially given the novels I recommended, which are all political or progressive to some degree. If anything I feel that pleasure and politics are not mutually exclusive, and that a book can be entertaining or beautiful and still tackle weighty themes. Rather, my gripe with (English) fiction publishing in South Africa was that for a long time there seemed to be some kind of resistance to publishing anything that wasn’t deadly serious and unwaveringly realist. I was almost afraid to read an SA novel because it would no doubt be harrowing. It’s only recently that I’ve seen more variety, and it’s the publication of spec fic that encouraged me, first to give local fiction another chance, and then to read as much of it as I could find 🙂

Mind-Bending Reads of 2014

As I said in my Best Novels of 2014 post, last year was a great year for reading, so much so that I want to do another list. There were a couple of books I read that didn’t make my list of favourites, and that I might not even have liked as much as books that didn’t make either of these lists. Nevertheless, there was something special about each of them – they offered things I’d never encountered before, gave me interesting idea to ponder, showed me different ways of doing things, or made me question my own assumptions and biases.

Here they are, in the order that I read them:

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve enjoyed Okorafor’s short stories but I struggled to connect with Lagoon, partly because it’s got loads of characters who you never get to know well enough, and partly because the story just failed to satisfy. That said, it very satisfyingly takes the epic alien invasion narrative out of the usual US setting (I get very very tired of these stories always happening in the States) and places it in Lagos, Nigeria, where the city’s chaos is deemed more suitable to the aliens’ plans. Okorafor lovingly depicts a city both frightening and fascinating, and weaves in local folklore and mythology. I particularly liked the part about a dangerous road depicted as a literal monster that eats the people and vehicles travelling on it. Lots of readers loved this book and despite my reservations I’d still encourage others to give it a shot.

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I’ve only recently started reading epic fantasy with any kind of regularity, and since politics has never been my strong point I often struggle to focus on those aspects of the plot. It’s particularly difficult in The Mirror Empire because Hurley is so incredibly inventive and works damn hard to avoid all the tired traditions of the genre. So there’s a lot of wildly imaginative, totally unfamiliar stuff to take in, along with a very complicated political plot involving diverse nations and peoples with varying social structures. But the things that make it a challenge also make it an amazing book that feels like nothing else I’ve ever read. Hurley builds a whole new world from the ground up. Instead of horses and forests, there are bears and carnivorous jungles. Instead of misogynist feudal societies there is an egalitarian polyamorous society based on consent, a society that recognises multiple genders, and misandrist matriarchy full of female warriors and male concubines. There are vegetarian cannibals, a magic system based on astronomy… Basically, if you want epic fantasy with a strong emphasis on the fantasy, then you should read this book.

The Three-Body ProblemThe Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

As with The Martian, I tried to challenge myself by reading hard sf, while also expanding my reading with Chinese sf. This one proved to be a much more demanding, with some very technical content that went waaay over my head. It’s also a historical novel, with parts of the narrative set during China’s Cultural Revolution and lots of references to that period and Chinese culture. This could make the book pretty alienating at times, but I still enjoyed it. The real drawcard is an epic story of first contact deeply influenced by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The story moves slowly, but when it’s good, it’s magnificent. The only reason I didn’t rate it higher is that it’s has a lot of flat characters, including an incredibly dull POV character who is little more than a tool to move the plot around. Still, The Three-Body Problem sets a thrilling story in motion, and I’m looking forward to the sequels, which several people have suggested I will enjoy much more.

We Have Always FoughtWe Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley

Yes, Kameron Hurley has two entries on this little list. I would recommend this book to ALL sff readers and writers. Seriously, EVERYONE. Kameron Hurley won a Hugo award for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”, on false assumptions about the roles of women in history (eg. that women don’t fight in wars), and the subsequent depiction of women in sff. This book is her collection of blog posts about sff, writing and publishing, most of which are similarly political. And it is a brilliant, eye-opening, mind-broadening read. Hurley points out how unthinking some genre stories can be, while offering myriad ideas for thinking more acutely about character, race, gender, worldbuilding, plot, etc. Reading it might make you feel frustrated to notice how wide-ranging these problems are or make you feel disappointed in favourite stories you’ve never questioned before, but it’ll also help you appreciate authors who think beyond the norms and make the effort to write better worlds.

This book also gave me even greater appreciation for Hurley’s novels, which I already admire. She often writes with unflinching honesty about the difficulties of writing fiction, getting your work published, and trying to get it sold. Along the way she offers loads of insights into her own novels, frequently making me want to go back and look at something I missed or reassess something I judged unkindly (like my annoyance with a sickly, disabled protagonist in The Mirror Empire). I didn’t put it on my list of favourites only because some of the essays are a bit boring, and can get a bit ranty and repetitive, tending to blur into one another if you read it cover to cover. That doesn’t make this any less of an absolute must-read.

Do you ever try to expand your reading? Did you read any eye-openers last year?

Best novels of 2014

Happy New Year everyone! 2014 was a great year for reading, especially after a somewhat lacklustre 2013. As I think back, it seems that this was a year for making much-needed changes, challenging myself, and trying new things. That made it a tough year, at times, but also an exciting one that sets the stage for an even better year in 2015 🙂

I can only hope that there’ll be just as many great books as I read in 2014. Here are my favourites, in the order that I read them:

The Broken KingdomsThe Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

It feels like such an age since I did this read-along that I was a bit surprised to see this on my Goodreads list of 2014 reads 🙂 N.K. Jemisin’s Interitance Trilogy showed me that I actually should be reading epic fantasy because it can be so, so awesome. In this sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin expands on the mythology, adding new perspectives to a story that seemed clear cut at first. The protagonist is a blind artist whose had a lot of gods in her life, because their magic is the one thing she can see clearly.

Besides being simply amazing fiction, The Inheritance Trilogy is also the perfect option for anyone looking to diversify their sff reading.

 

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir must be the biggest self-publishing success story – The Martian started as a free serial on his blog, got picked up by major publishers, and is now being made into a big Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon (due to be released in 2015).

At first, I wasn’t sure this would be the book for me – a survivalist story set on Mars with lots of hard science? But I wanted to challenge myself and it paid off in spades. The Martian is a fantastic page-turner, and although there is a lot of hard science, the author makes it palatable enough for any reader. I was worried that it’d get boring, with most of the narrative focused on a man alone on Mars, but Mark Watney’s endlessly optimistic and humorous personality kept me entertained. I can’t wait to see the movie.

 

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente! Her name is enough to sell me a book, and I snatched up a copy of this Subterranean Press limited edition when it came out. Valente’s writing and imagination is like nothing else out there, and I particularly like her use of myth and fairy tale. Six-Gun Snow White is dark, brutal and just as strange and beautiful as I hoped it would be.

Now can someone please do special editions of the rest of her books? I will just give you my money.

 

 

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

It’s the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920s New York. The twelve Hamilton sisters are forbidden by their father from ever leaving the house, but Jo, the oldest, takes them out every night to go dancing in the city’s speakeasies. It’s the best life she can give her sisters, until their father decides to solves his financial problems by selling them off in marriage. Historical fiction isn’t normally by thing, but stepping out of my comfort zone has been one of the best things about 2014. Valentine’s book was sheer joy to read.

 

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Out of 2014’s favourites, this one was the most thrilling, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring… It was extremely fucking impressive. I love gods and mythology, and like N.K. Jemisin, Bennett has created his own to make one of the most amazing fantasy worlds I’ve ever read. I also love it because its protagonist is a skinny, bespectacled, unassuming woman who turns out to be the only one badass enough to save the world specifically because she’s a total geek. That said, I also have a very soft spot for her assistant Sigrud, a hulking berserker who is single-handedly responsible for the best action scene in the book.

 

Devilskein and DearloveDevilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

I’m very picky with YA, but I was thoroughly enchanted by this South African take on The Secret Garden. It’s set in one of my regular Cape Town haunts – Long Street – with characters who are charming, belligerent and despicable (occasionally all three). It’s rather dark, with its friendship between a grief-stricken young girl and a demon who wants her heart, but that’s why I like it.

 

 

 

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Now THIS is the kind of horror I like. Tense, disturbing, and gets gory only when it really means something. Horror stories often falter when the monster is revealed, but Malerman neatly eschews this problem with creatures that people have to avoid looking at, because one glimpse will cause them to commit gruesome suicide. The characters blindfold themselves whenever they’re outside, knowing they could be surrounded by monsters at any time. It’s not flawless, but it scared the hell out of me.

 

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This book was so good I decided not to read another novel after it just so I would end my year’s reading (of novels) on a perfect note. Like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, its protagonist lives his life over and over again, but this book is so much better because Harry August remembers everything about his past lives. The way his experiences build on one another makes for a fascinating personal struggle in itself, but the main plot of the book is an impending apocalypse – one of these time travellers is causing the world to end, and it’s happening faster and faster. Harry is in a position to do something about it, but his first question is why he should do anything at all; the world will end eventually.

To explain what he ultimately chooses to do, Harry relates the story of his many lives. His introspective journey eventually builds into quite a nail-biting thriller, but the real beauty of this book is the way all Harry wrestles with ethical questions, influenced by the weight of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s one of the most accomplished new novels I’ve read. I want to re-read it right now, and it feels like it could become one of my long-term favourites.

 

So tell me, did you have a good 2014? And what were your favourite reads?

GUEST POST: The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors by Scott Gray Meintjes

Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Risingan action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!

The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors

As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.

My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of  technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.

The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.

But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.

Steel Wind RisingLiterature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?

There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as  being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.

But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.

One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.

The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.

So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.

Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.

__________________________

Scott MeintjesScott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.

Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.