Because we are predominantly visual creatures, how things seem has a disproportionate effect on how we receive them. While the act of seeing is physiological, the art of seeing is artificial. That you can see is one thing, but interpreting what you see involves straining it through filters both personal and societal. When things slip through these filters, we don’t react much. That’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 be exposed to extremes of emotion: fear, disgust, elation, perhaps in proportion to the degree of ‘otherness’ involved. But let’s not get wanky, my point is, there’s a qualifier to be noted here. As a writer, the most useful emotion is unease. Horror gets boring quick; terror is emotionally draining, but an uneasy reader wants to keep turning the pages like a driver on a foggy road gets faster and faster to see what’s around the next bend. There are many examples of this, but the one I like best is ‘the uncanny valley’.
The ‘uncanny valley’ was a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 70’s which theorised that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to eeriness as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. Now go and Google the shit out of that, if you want: I’ll wait here [play elevator music now]. You got all that? Good, it’s a bit headspinny for those of us not still in that tertiary education headspace. Moving on, my favourite examples of TUV all come from a particular niche of the filmic sci-fi milieu–the female robot–in which that eerinessis not just a trope, but also a red flag.
While you’re balls-deep in Wikipedia, go a bit deeper and check out the list of fictional female robots and ‘gynoids’ in film and literature. Compare this with any list of gender-unspecified or nominally ‘male’ robots and you are immediately struck by one thing: many of the ‘males’ look like actual distinguishable robots, whereas a lot of the ‘females’ look like women. Examples include Ava from Ex Machina (2015), Ava from The Machine (2013), Cleo from Automata (2014). So why is that?
A beginning could be found in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto‘ by Donna Haraway, but that just takes me back to my frustration at a tutor who, struggling to retain her tenure, let my Honours’ thesis slide off into irrelevance. But that would be bitterness not unease that I’m feeling even now, wouldn’t it? So I don’t much care about the ‘why’ question, except as to how it might inspire writing. I think when men create ‘women’ they’re not asking questions about the future but rather struggling with sex and gender issues in the present. When I see a robot with boobs, I say, why? Unless a slinky chassis serves a purpose then aren’t they a design flaw? Robot-hotties objectify women literally. Yet for all the busty fembots out there can you think of a single ‘male’ robot with a penis? Of course not, we’ve cleverly disguised all robot penes (the correct plural) as firearms instead.
The male ‘bot gets hulking arms and a massive alpha-male chest, no doubt suited to the ‘combat missions’ masculine robots seem doomed to appear in. That said, it’s worth noting that there are many, many exceptions to the rule, and how the androgynous android 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, if you’re not going to assign gender, is to make them infantile and sexless. Biddable and compliant, the gender-free robot lives a much happier existence than the ‘female’ robot, whose programming goes awry so often that it’s almost as if their male programmers are trying to say something. Maybe that women can’t be trusted because they all want to think for themselves, the sly bitches, and hence that woman who misbehaves must always be punished/reprogrammed.
Maybe I’m selling these guys short. It’s not black and white. If, as Sophie Mayer, lecturer at London University suggests, machines are metaphors of our own anxieties, then should we not also expect stories that confound the status quo? Wouldn’t that be the surest way to identify the edge of the uncanny valley, the point just before your stomach lurches suddenly into the eeriness of the so-familiar-yet-so-wrong? Much praised for pushing the envelope, Ex Machina (2015) left me unsettled: is this yet another warning 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 suffer and die, or have their dicks bitten off either 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 in patriarchal overlord mode, assuming women are ‘nicer’ than men.
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 just as hard on the penis-wearing half of the human race, but at least all the men don’t get murdered. It points a way forward that is unfortunately more realistic than anything I’ve read or seen before. Men are pathetic isolated wretches, but at least they’re allowed to live and maybe even form relationships with much more ‘together’ women. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it! But of course it’s only science fiction, folks, at least until the blurry edge between real and the not-yet-real dissipates. And don’t kid yourself that it won’t be during our lifetimes. Try watching this video by weapons manufacturer Boston Dynamics without shivering, and then note that it’s already two years old. Killer robots are history, baby, not the future.
For me then the task is to move the conversation forward by taking the reader where they don’t necessarily want to go. It may not be neighbourly, but my robots don’t need boobs or guns. They don’t need human faces, either. They just need to quietly go about the business of making human endeavour redundant and we’ll finish ourselves off with 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, forgetting what it means to be human even as we continue to strive for that godlike moment when we create something that surpasses us. Our universe, ending with a burp and the crunch of potato chips.
The stories that need to be written along the way are the ones I’m interested in: how machines right now, not tomorrow, are disconnecting us from each other. The eeriness of standing on the lip of a world that seems human but, suddenly, is revealed not so, is with us every day when our iPhones tell us how far we are from home, or second-guess our text messages, correct our spelling or invite us unbidden to make purchases online. If you’re using the ‘Beam Messenger’ app, your contact sees the message as you type it, so that you can ‘stay engaged unlike ever before!” apparently. But if we’re all of us always talking, then who out there is listening?
Except the machines, of course.