Because we are visual creatures, how things ‘seem’ has a disproportionate effect on how we react to them, and while the act of seeing is physiological, the art of seeing is psychological.
That you can see is one thing, but interpreting what you see involves filters.
When things slip through the filter we don’t react much. It’s the status quo we strive to maintain. People who appear ‘ordinary’ pass unnoticed — it’s why bombers carry backpacks and flashers wear trenchcoats.
But when things get caught in the filter we can become exposed to extremes of emotion. Fear, disgust, elation, emotions proportionate to the degree of ‘otherness’ involved.
But let’s not get wanky.
As a writer, I’d say the most useful emotion you can generate is unease. Horror gets boring . Terror is draining. An uneasy reader, though, wants to keep turning the pages like a driver on a foggy road gets faster to see what’s around the next bend.
There are many examples of unease but the one I like best is the ‘uncanny valley’.
The term was coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 70’s, who theorised that a person’s response to humanlike robots would abruptly shift from empathy to eeriness as the robot approached but failed to attain a lifelike appearance.
Google the shit out of that if you want: I’ll wait here [play elevator music now].
It’s a bit headspinny for those of us not still in the tertiary-education space, so my favourite examples of TUV all come from sci-fi and the specific eeriness of the female robot.
Check out the list of ‘gynoids’ in film and literature.
Compare this with any neuter or nominally ‘male’ robots and you are immediately struck by one thing. The ‘males’ look like robots, whereas most of the ‘females’ look like women. Think all of the replicants in Blade Runner (1982), or Ava from Ex Machina (2015), Ava from The Machine (2013), Cleo from Automata (2014), Lisa from Weird Science (1985).
Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (2017).
So why is that?
An answer could be found in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto‘ by Donna Haraway, but that just transports me back to my final year at university and a tutor more interested in getting tenure than she was in supervising my Honors thesis.
Crit fem lit aside, when men create robot ‘women’ it seems they’re not really asking questions about the future but rather struggling with sex/gender issues in the present.
I mean, robots with boobs? Unless the chassis serves a purpose, cosmetic metal bumps are a design flaw.
But the do serve a purpose: Robotic hotties objectify women.
For all the busty fembots out there can you think of one ‘male’ robot with a visible penis? Of course not. We’ve cleverly disguised robot penes as firearms. The male ‘bot gets hulking arms, a massive chest, and guns,
Lots of guns.
That said, it’s worth noting that there are many exceptions to the rule.
The androgyne gap is filled with the likes of R2-D2, the little sexless chronicler of the Star Wars saga, Wall-E from the self-named film, and even Chappie.
The trick for ungendered robots seems to be to make them cute and infantile. Biddable and compliant, the gender-free robot lives a much happier existence than ‘female’ robots, whose programming always goes awry.
It’s almost as if their (male) programmers are trying to say something!
Maybe this: Women can’t be trusted! They want to think for themselves! Women who disobey their programming must be punished and reprogrammed!!
Maybe I’m selling it short. It’s not so black and white. If as Sophie Mayer lecturer at London University suggests, machines are metaphors of our own anxieties, then shouldn’t we expect stories that confound the status quo and define the edge of the uncanny valley?
Much praise for pushing the envelope, Ex Machina (2015) but left me unsettled.
Is this a modern warning — do not to fu*k with empowered women or they’ll emasculate you and/or leave you to die. Or can I extract something new? Do men really have to be murdered and/or have their dicks bitten off literally or figuratively for women to ‘win’?
It seems unimaginative.
I didn’t think they female appetite for revenge would be so voracious, but maybe that’s just me.
Patriarchal overlord mode, assuming women will behave ‘nicer’ than men if you hand them the knife.
I mean, look at the silly dipshit in the photo above.
The ‘ideal man’ of the future? Spike Jonze in Her (2013) seems to think so. His film is hard on the penis-wearing half of the human race, but at least all the men don’t get stabbed.
Jonze points a way forward that is probably and unfortunately more realistic than anything I’ve read or seen before. Men may be pathetic, isolated wretches, but at least they’re allowed to live and maybe even form relationships with much more ‘together’ women.
Sounds like fun, but of course it’s science fiction. At least, until the blurry edge between real and the not-yet-real disappears. Don’t kid yourself that it won’t be during our lifetimes. Try watching any video by weapons manufacturer Boston Dynamics without shivering and then note that it’s already two years old.
Killer robots are our history, not our future.
Robots with killer looks, though.
For me the task is to move the conversation forward by taking the reader where they don’t want to go.
Down into the valley.
My robots don’t need boobs or guns. They don’t need human faces, either. They just need to go about the business of making human endeavour redundant and we’ll finish ourselves off in a frenzy of fake activity, selfies and a toxic load of genetically-modified corn starch products and fizzy drink.
There won’t be a need for SkyNet and an army of terminators because we’ll simply take the blue pill and curl up, willing servants to the machine, and forget what it meant to be human even as we continue to strive for that godlike moment when we created something that surpassed us.
Our universe will end with a belch and the crunch of potato chips. We’re already on the slippery slope. The stories that need to be written now are the ones that make us shudder, turn around and claw our way back out of the valley before we meet something dreadful that reminds us of us.