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January 29th, 2009


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02:35 pm - Robots, Power, & Sex in SF
While robots (and more commonly sentient AI's and near sentient AIs )are common features of much modern SF, they are rarely foregrounded. There were AIs in Alastair Reynolds' excellent recent novel House of Suns, but they were largely treated as a separate species that controlled its own areas of space. Books dealing with the social implications or robots or sentient AIs have been fairly rare of late. Until very recently, for the last 20 years, the only two books I remember reading were Melissa Scott's brilliant pair of novels Dreamships & Dreaming Metal, which dealt with a society on the verge of creating AI and are among the finest SF novels I've read and dealt with a variety of social tensions wonderfully well. However, that's been it, until recently. Also, like many other similar books, they just dealt with the emergence of sentient AIs, not what happened after they appeared. Within the past couple of months, I've read Saturn's Children by Charles Stross & Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld.

Stross recent work is well known, but everyone talks about how it's a Heinlein pastiche with much in common with Friday (with a major difference being that Saturn's Children is not a piece of frighteningly misogynistic trash). However, when I read Saturn's Children, the Heinlein elements seemed less obvious than the fact that it's a (rather harsh) look as Asimov's ideas of robots. Both Saturn's Children & Evolution's Darling are about robots and have robots as protagonists (of course, with humans extinct, all of the characters in Saturn's Children are robots). Both books are also about power & slavery, and they both contain a fairly impressive amount of robot sex (or in the case of Evolution's Darling, a goodly amount of surprisingly hot robot-human sex).

Reading these two novels got me thinking about my own experiences with robots in fiction. I still remember the first novel I read which had a robot protagonist – I don't remember the title, but it was a kids SF novel from the 1960s with robot that had become fully sentient. It was on the run to avoid being memory wiped or something and ended up in the company of a pre-teen boy who helped the robot. In short, it was a story about an escaped slave being aided by a free boy. Of course, the robot was also very helpful to the boy, given that its nature was to be helpful and protective. A bit later, as a young teen, I read a whole bunch of Asimov's robot stories – stories of humanity's happy servants, along with a (very) few hints of complexities in this situation.

Stories of robots are stories about power and freedom. A robot can be everything from a slave wanting freedom to the perfect servant who is always happy to serve, to something in between. Of course, in more recent SF, this serving can include sex, with the robot as the always-willing sexual partner who is quite literally incapable of saying no. Power, and in many cases sex, are an unavoidable part of any story about robots. Both Stross and Westerfeld deal with these issues head on. I saw Saturn's Children as simultaneously a wonderfully fun romp and an examination of the serious moral problems with the idea of Asimov-style robots that are also fully intelligent beings. Intelligent robots who exist to serve humanity and who cannot do otherwise are nothing more or less than mind-controlled slaves. Once the humans die off, the situation is no better – it's far easier for robots to be slaves than masters, so you've got a few (often fairly screwed up and horrid) masters and a whole lot of slaves.

Evolution's Darling is a significantly different book, in that the AIs (most of whom are in robot bodies) are far more able to exceed their programming and so they aren't anything like the same sort of willing slaves. Also, in this novel, robots that become fully sentient become free individuals and over time robots go from being servants who are freed if they become sentient to beings that are treated much like children – they work, but they are also helped to become sentient and are freed when they succeed. However, even here questions of power remain. Humans are mortal, but robots aren't, and the oldest robots seem to have the potential to become ever more intelligent. As a result, you have what looks like a fairly equitable world, but which is actually ruled by a secret cabal of ancient and brilliant AIs. I'm somewhat reminded of the emergent planetary intelligences in Westerfeld's later (and utterly brilliant) pair of novels, The Risen Empire & The Killing of Worlds - gods that humanity has created, except that the secret robot masters in Evolution's Darling are remarkably ruthless and brutal beings who are determined to maintain their freedom and supremacy at any cost, which is not an unreasonable goal for ex-slaves. Stories of robots are at their heart stories about power & freedom, and these to novels about robots are also stories about sex and they are both well worth reading.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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Comments:


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From:heavenscalyx
Date:January 29th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)
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Two thoughts, not nearly as coherent or interesting as your post:

One of the earliest books I read that involved a robot achieving sentience was Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover (written back in the days when Lee wrote halfway decent science fantasy). I was obsessed with it in my teen years, rereading it dozens of times and loving it, and so I haven't been able to go back as an adult and see whether it really is a decent book or not. Heck, it was a romance novel -- certainly commenting on power and freedom, and possibly just a bit about class -- that was in my genre, back when no one was writing genre romance.

Maureen McHugh wrote a really, really interesting short story/novella about the possible emergence of AI, and how it might reasonably be detected, which was part of a book that she and Timmi DuChamp created (Plugged In) for WisCon 2008. If you can find it, I highly recommend it.
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From:siderea
Date:January 30th, 2009 05:43 am (UTC)
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I was obsessed with it in my teen years, rereading it dozens of times and loving it, and so I haven't been able to go back as an adult and see whether it really is a decent book or not.

I only encountered it as an adult[*], and I think it's excellent, despite not having much tolerance for romance (I think there might be an argument that it's not romance, but I don't know enough about romance to say).

It's not really about the robot and doesn't have much to say about AI -- the power and freedom it's talking about are overwhelmingly concerning Jane and her mother. Silver is entirely a foil for Jane's character development.

BTW, did you know there's a sequel?

[* For which I am duly grateful; I think if I had read it as a depressed teen, I would have thrown myself off a tall building.]
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From:kadath
Date:January 29th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)
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I'm being forced to buy off my "Free AI" Dark Secret in GURPS Space because nobody but me wanted to explore the narrative ramifications. :(
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From:xuenay
Date:January 29th, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)
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Intelligent robots who exist to serve humanity and who cannot do otherwise are nothing more or less than mind-controlled slaves.

Sounds like needless anthropomorphization to me. Why would creating a robot with a desire to serve be any more or less right than creating it with any other desire?
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From:heron61
Date:January 29th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
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A great deal of this depends upon that nature of artificial intelligence. If it is in some significant way different from our own, then all bets are off. However, it seems likely (as Stross posited in Saturn's Children) that AIs will to some degree (and perhaps to a very great degree) be modeled on human minds (which seems exceptionally likely given the IBM brain modeling experiments going on now). If you take something like a human mind and give it effectively unbreakable mandates that it cannot disobey orders or even consider doing so, then you have a slave.

There are several ways around this problem, with the two most obvious being either only creating AIs that aren't actually intelligent and self-aware or not programming AIs to always obey humans.
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From:blue_estro
Date:January 29th, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC)
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Iain M. Banks' Culture series. The AIs vary from drones, to starships, to subprocesses running in organic bodies.
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From:roseembolism
Date:January 30th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
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I was thinking the Culture series would be a good reversal of the situation...maybe. Because while the AI MInds indulge the humans in pretty much anything they want, the actual meat of governing is taken care of by the Minds.

So do we have in the Culture AIs constrained by a desire to serve? Or do we have Minds that are in control, and humans as pampered and spoiled pets (with the occasional working animal)?
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From:heron61
Date:January 30th, 2009 12:27 am (UTC)
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Very true, but except for Excession (which I found to be the one Culture novel that I thought was a dismal failure), the Minds and Drones were not the focus, they were simply other characters, and so while these were novels with robots, they weren't novels about robots.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 30th, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
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"...Friday (with a major difference being that Saturn's Children is not a piece of frighteningly misogynistic trash)."

I've read Friday and several other works by Heinlein. I did not find Friday misogynisitic in the least.

However, I much prefer Spider Robinson. Spider's politics are much more sensible than Heinlein's (translation: Robinson is into peace and love and transhumanism, where Heinelein came up with Starship Troopers, which ended up being made into a pro-military propganda movie. Ugh.)

I've read a couple of Asimov's short stories, too, as a kid, along with that story about a boy who helped a robot escape from slavery.

One novel you may find interesting, speaking of robot sex, is called Molly Dear (forgot the author.) Molly is a bioperson (robot made of flesh, which is derived somehow from vegetable matter), and was created to serve her master in every way. One day, she suddenly becomes self-aware. The rest of the book details her life struggles against the system.
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From:heron61
Date:January 30th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
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I did not find Friday misogynisitic in the least.

I have great difficulty calling it anything other than that, when the plot is all about how the fetishized beautiful super-agent finds true fulfillment as a frontier housewife. Ick.

where Heinlein came up with Starship Troopers, which ended up being made into a pro-military propganda movie.

As a side-note, while the novel Starship Troopers was a piece of fascist nonsense, the movie was brilliant. The movie is (IMHO at least) one of the most wonderfully subversive adaptations of a dubious novel that I've ever seen. It is both hilarious and deeply anti-fascist, and a was (for me at least) a joy to watch. Of course, it also provides me with endless fun when I announce to pro-Heinlein milterists how much better I liked it than the book :)

OTOH, I'm right there with you about Spider Robinson.
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From:rjgrady
Date:January 30th, 2009 01:37 am (UTC)
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I am not essentially opposed to slavery. I am opposed to human slavery because, as history has left little doubt, it is the road to evil. Robot slavery therefore does not bother me in theory; I think it remains to be seen whether robot slavery leads to suffering. It is entirely possible that robots may accomplish what the Greeks could not; a culture uplifted by the labor of slaves who claim no interests as their own.
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:January 30th, 2009 04:41 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure if you've seen the Ghost in the Shell series, and the Tachikoma contained therein (the vaguely childlike droids). If you have, what is your opinion of how they adapted by the end of the first season? For me, the end clips dealing with them was one of the most fascinating aspects of the series, clearly showing their self-identity and growing individuation. I also liked that towards the end they had progressed to the point self-sacrifice was a viable option in saving one they considered a friend. What this series managed to so, at least in my opinion, was far more introspective and meaningful than even Star Trek with Data.

As a note, I'm not sure if you're aware (or if it matters much), but with regards to the Star Wars RPG where it is possible to play a Robot/Droid character (and always has been), that there is now the option with one of the prestige classes of becoming an independent droid.
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From:siderea
Date:January 30th, 2009 06:09 am (UTC)
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A bit later, as a young teen, I read a whole bunch of Asimov's robot stories – stories of humanity's happy servants, along with a (very) few hints of complexities in this situation.

This is odd to me. I've only read one of Asimov's robot stories, so you'd certainly know better than I how to generalize among them. But the one I did read, back when I was a little girl, was "Bicentennial Man", probably the seminal moment in my becoming a civil libertarian.
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From:heron61
Date:January 30th, 2009 07:17 am (UTC)
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That's actually the story that made me add "along with a (very) few hints of complexities in this situation" almost all of the rest are various mystery (and a few adventure) stories with happy robot servants, or a few insane robot servants.
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From:waterfire741
Date:January 30th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
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Personally, I enjoyed the last couple of Dune Sequels. They had some protagonists that were sentient independent robots, as well as a tyrannical overmind AI. Course, I'm a Dune fan.

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