Photo credit: Anna Camille
We’ve all seen this robot: a monster layered in shining metal, eyes glowing with a feral intensity, clawlike fingers grasping for the next human victim. It’s immaterial whether you happen to be thinking of The Terminator
, Battlestar Galactica
, Ultron, or any number of other books, movies, or video games. The fact is, robots have evolved to become so much more than chromed killers.
I guess it’s fair to say I like robots. A lot.
After half a decade building robots at Carnegie Mellon University, I have gone on to write dozens of robot characters in novels like Robopocalypse
, and most recently, The Clockwork Dynasty
There is even a special clause that goes into my writing contracts, saying something along the lines of, “Daniel loves writing robots, he will write more robots, and although there may be some similarities between his robot characters, please don’t sue him for this.”
The reason I write robot characters is because they provide excellently sharp scalpels, which I try to use to dissect human emotion, relationships, and behavior.
First off, robots see human characters as they are. Human behavior is complicated — a secret language of vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions — and what we take for granted, robot characters have to figure out. Writing a robot means analyzing all the ephemera of walking, talking, and recognizing faces and gestures from an alien perspective.
By way of example, here’s a bit from Robopocalypse
in which a robot is watching human beings and trying to figure them out:
Soon, most of the human squad stands within ten meters of me. They are careful not to approach any closer. An observation thread notes how kinetic they are. Each of them has small eyes that constantly open and close and dart around; their chests are always rising and falling; and they sway minutely in place as they perform a constant balancing act to stay bipedal.
Cherrah and Leo bare their teeth at each other. Emotion recognition indicates that these humans are now happy. This seems low probability. I cock my head to indicate confusion and run a diagnostic on my emotion recognition subprocess.
The female makes quiet clucking sounds. I orient my face to her. She seems dangerous.
“What’s so funny, Cherrah?” asks Cormac.
“I don’t know. This thing. Nine Oh Two. It’s just such a . . . robot. You know? It’s so damned earnest.”
But robots can also be more than just perplexed machines staring at people. Sometimes, I have human characters take on “robotic” features to more clearly demonstrate their underlying humanity. In my short story, "The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever," an emotionally robotic father tries to save his toddler daughter from a terrifying natural disaster. The mathematically-minded man feels a connection to the little girl that he calls “love,” but he’s bothered that he can’t quantify the feeling numerically. Sacrificing his life to save hers, he comes to understand it:
The world is made of change. People arrive and people leave. But my love for her is constant. It is a feeling that cannot be quantified because it is not a number. Love is a pattern in the chaos.
And stripping away elements of humanity can be more than an emotional exercise. There is also the question of when we physically lose our humanity. In Robogenesis
, a character named Lark Ironcloud has his body taken over by a nightmarish robotic exoskeleton. As his body dies and he learns to control the machine inside him, he realizes that his humanity has become vestigial:
It’s an old Marine Kabar knife, narrow and sharp and black-bladed. I let the moonlight glint off the blade in the familiar greenish tones of my active illumination. The heart of the parasite is nestled on the back of my neck at the base of my spine. Right where I can almost forget about it. Keeping my brain alive through some kind of black magic.
The world is quiet for me. No breath. No heartbeat.
I plunge the blade into my shin and push it down, severing everything below my ankle.
My foot is gone, leaving only a black Y of metal. It was. And now it is not. Some deeply human part of my brain is gaping, screaming at this horrible violation of my body.
But there is another part of me. A part that watches with the calm old eyes of a barn owl. This is the new part of me. The me that has no more weakness.
There are endless variations to explore, and some of them constitute my favorite stories of all time. For example, in the timeless novella, Flowers for Algernon
, Daniel Keyes starts with the purest human he can find, the simple-minded Charlie Gordon. Then a new drug gives Charlie a (some would say robotic) intellect that grows until he loses track of his humanity. He decides, with incredible genius at his disposal, to go back to being simple and human.
Robots and robotic attributes hold up a distorted mirror to humanity, with fascinating results.
In my new novel, The Clockwork Dynasty
, a group of ancient robots called avtomat
, the Russian word for "robot," scour the world for centuries at a time in search of meaning and purpose. Each avtomat has a different “Word” engraved on its hardware — a reason for being
, like "Logic," "Mercy," or "Honor." This single Word defines a functionally immortal being who will live for thousands of years or longer. It’s an idea inspired by the messages pushed into the mouth of a golem, or the computer programming that guides decisions for a modern robot. The question is whether this guiding principle makes the machine deterministic, or if it leaves room for free will.
Here’s an excerpt from The Clockwork Dynasty
, in which a recently built avtomat
sees himself for the first time and grasps his Word:
“Look upon yourself,” whispers the old man.
At my full height, I see my movements reflected in the gleaming panel. I am tall and thin. Very tall. My face is smooth, chin dimpled, eyes sharp and predatory over a straight nose. Ringed in brown curls of hair, my face is only crudely human. My lower lip is pulled to the side, slightly disfigured. I am not wearing clothes. Instead, my chest and arms are layered in beaten metal banding with occasional tight swathes of leather tidily placed underneath. A winking light haunts the depths of my brown eyes, and I now understand why Favo has awe in his voice.
“My son?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“What is the first thing?” he asks.
“The first thing?”
Flexing my fists again, I feel an unyielding strength in my metal bones. I am so much bigger than this small old man.
“Yes,” he whispers. “In your mind. Reach inside and tell me the first thing. The first word you ever knew. What is your Word, my son?”
There is a word that is the shape of my life.
I set my eyes upon the old man, and the leather of my lips scratches as I say the Word out loud for the first time.
“Pravda,” I say. “I am the unity of truth and justice.”
In The Clockwork Dynasty
, the robot characters interpret their lives through the shifting context of humanity, fulfilling their purpose differently as they fall through the ages of human history. I think it’s similar to how people find meaning differently as we age. How the avtomat
choose to interpret their purpose determines whether they are heroes or villains, whether they live or die, and whether they find themselves surrounded by allies or enemies.
Human beings are more complicated than a single word. But once again, I find myself using robot characters to strip complex human behavior down to an atomic unit of meaning — a word that allows for another examination of the human condition.
And that, my friend, is why I write so many robots.
÷ ÷ ÷
Daniel H. Wilson
is a Cherokee citizen and author of the New York Times
and its sequel Robogenesis
, as well as seven other books, including How to Survive a Robot Uprising
, A Boy and His Bot
, and Amped
. He earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as Masters degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. His next novel, The Clockwork Dynasty
, will be released on August 1st, 2017. Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon.