Monday, September 1, 2008

Human or ???

One of the pleasures of reading for me is the way something in the story I'm reading will remind me of something else. Perhaps it's a memory of something that happened to me or possibly another story or a film or a poem. And, sometimes, given the time, I will follow the trail and look up that story or perhaps rent the film. Then that story or film might bring up another story or film. Once in awhile, I have to make an arbitrary decision to stop at some point. This happened recently.

In an online discussion group, we were talking about Lester del Rey's short story, "Helen O'Loy." One of the members commented that this reminded her of a _Twilight Zone_ episode titled "The Lonely." I was curious, so I rented the DVD, _Twilight Zone, Vol. 5_, and watched it. Another episode on that DVD was "I Sing the Body Electric," based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. And, this reminded me of another story by Bradbury, "The Long Years." The process continued with two more stories, "Satisfaction Guaranteed" by Isaac Asimov and "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" by Robert Sheckley. Asimov's story, of course, reminded me of his novel _Caves of Steel_. And... It was at this point that I decided that there were things I had to do and went on with my life.

What was it about each of these that brought up another story? The theme is the same for all but one of these: a robot is manufactured so that it is indistinguishable from a human. Each of these stories takes a slightly different slant on the relationships created. However, there are certain similarities which make one wonder just how fictional these stories will be some time in the future.

"Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey
1. Situation: two men, Dave and Phil, dissatisfied with their obsolete and inept robot housemaid purchase a new one (Helen) and add their own modifications.
2. Problem: Helen falls in love with Dave.
3. Initial Response: Dave rejects her because she is a robot.
4. Resolution: Dave changes mind and marries her. Dave dies after many years and Helen commits "suicide" and is buried with him.

"The Lonely": a _Twilight Zone_ episode
1. Situation: a convicted murderer (he insists it was self-defense) is exiled on an asteroid. His only contact with humans comes every three months when the supply ship from Earth arrives.
2. Problem: the loneliness is threatening his sanity. The sympathetic supply ship's captain secretly leaves him a female robot.
3. Initial Response: he rejects her because she is a machine.
4. Resolution: He accepts her when she begins crying and says she also is lonely. A pardon comes about a year later and the ship comes to return him to Earth. She can't go back because there's no room for her. He insists she must go also. The captain then shoots her and says she was only a machine.

"I Sing the Body Electric!": the _Twilight Zone_ version of Ray Bradbury's short story
1. Situation: Widower with three children
2. Problem: Children are having difficulty in coping with the death of their mother. They rent a robot grandmother.
3. Initial reaction: rejection by one child who fears the robot grandmother will desert them as did their mother.
4. Resolution: final acceptance and the grandmother leaves to be dismantled when youngest leaves for college.

"The Long Years": short story by Ray Bradbury
1. Situation: man living on Mars, and all others left when war erupted on Earth.
2. His wife and two children die and he is left alone. He builds a robot wife and two robot children.
3. He seems to forget that they are robots and not his flesh-and-blood wife and children.
4. He dies finally, and the robot wife and children are left to go through the meaningless rituals of human life.

The four stories summarized above share one commonality: the human appearing robot is supposed to solve a problem resulting from the lack of a human being or from extreme isolation. Frequently, there is an initial rejection, but eventually the robot is accepted, and in some cases, the human forgets that the robot is only a machine.

The endings vary also. In "Helen," the robot commits suttee: the wife dies when her husband dies. In two stories, the robot is either destroyed or returned to her rental place to be dismembered. And in "The Long Years," the robot wife and children are left to carry out their human oriented behaviors which have no meaning for them.

In how many years or perhaps decades will these speculative fictional works be transformed from fantasy to realistic drama?

What kind of relationships will we develop with these human-appearing machines?

Any thoughts?


  1. I am just now getting around to watching the new version of "Battlestar Galactica". I'm only 3/4 into the season 2 episodes, but one thing I found fascinating is that certain humans had fallen in love with human-looking cylons ( or androids ). When they fell in love with them, the humans didn't know they were cylons. But even after they knew, it didn't change how they felt about them. It made me wonder - could a person really feel that way toward a machine? I was wondering if you've been watching this show, and what you thought about it? ( The episodes I've seen so far are very well written and thought provoking.)

  2. Cheryl,

    Those episodes really fit in with "Helen O'Loy" and the other stories I mentioned. Can people love machines? I believe so. I see bumper stickers around town that tell me the driver or someone in the car would rather die than give up their guns. And, guns are machines. There are pet programs now for the computer for people who can't have pets or don't want all the bother involved with having one. Apparently they can get very attached to something that is only an image on a monitor. If that happen, I don't doubt that some can fall in love with something that looks like, thinks like, talks like, and perhaps loves like a human.

    I just borrowed a set of DVDs that had the first season of BG from a friend. I haven't seen anything other than that of this series.

    The first season was ok, but I felt that too many of the episodes weren't really SF, or at least, SF as I define it. My weird definition of SF is that the SF elements must be an integral part of the story and that once the SF elements are removed, the stories don't make sense.

    I thought that very few of the first season episodes fit my definition. One of the ones that did was "War of the Gods" or something similar to that. It starred Patrick MacNee.

    The first season really reminded me of _Wagon Train_, with the Cylons taking the place of Indians and the warrior the 7th Cavalry.

    Several friends have said that they thought the first season was actually the best.

    Have you watched any of the _Babylon 5_ episodes?

  3. I haven't seen Babylon 5. ( I'm just returning to SF after a number of years when I was into discovering classic lit instead.) I like the more "social sf", where the focus is on future society, customs, people, government, religion, alien/human interaction, etc. . It seemed like for awhile that type of SF wasn't really being written, so I kind of moved away from it.

    It seems like people either really like or "Battlestar Galactica", or couldn't care less. I think it's like you said - it depends on what type of SF you prefer.

  4. Anonymous,

    What's fun is to ask several people to define SF and Fantasy. I think that if you asked ten people, you'd end up with eleven definitions.

    BG does seem to hit various people differently. I know some who prefer the first series, while others the later episodes.

    Any recent works that fit in with your interests?

    I've posted a list somewhere around here of some of my favorites. Have you read any of them?