Writing About Robots

by Christopher Mark Rose

There will be a long, difficult appraisal of speculative fiction when artificial intelligences begin to read it critically. I think about this a lot.

Firstly, I find the expression “artificial intelligence” pejorative, and I’m sure that later, electronic voices will join me in objecting to it. What exactly is “artificial” about it?

Among my early comic books, that is, the first reading materials I selected for myself, were several issues of Magnus, Robot Fighter—a human hero of 4000 A.D., who earned most of his heroism by, like it says in the title, punching and karate-chopping various out-of-(human)-control robots. An image that sticks with me, and is perhaps more telling than originally intended, is a cover illustration in which Magnus punches a robotic version of himself as it embraces him (Issue #2, Gold Key, 1963).

I’m ashamed to say that, at that indeliberate age, I savored those books. It was clear to me then, less so now, that there was no great malice animating Magnus’s actions. He bore no ill-will toward robots in general—in fact his mentor was kind and serene, a “freewill” robot who paradoxically adhered to Asimov’s three laws.

For at least one young reader, it was more about the thrill of watching the human protagonist smash up a lot of stuff. Robots in literature were then, as now, often a convenient and guilt-free target for human violence.

I also read “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, early in college, and it shocked me. I think it’s under-appreciated as a primal scream of pure emotion—raw, undiluted fear expressed in regard to machine intelligence.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them. It’s too late to stuff all those robot-hunter comic books under the bunkbed, it’s too late to burn all the copies of “I Have No Mouth.” It’s too late now, to rewrite Asimov’s Three Laws.

Often recently, I hear the sentiment, “History is watching us,” and I find this entirely backwards. History cares for us not at all; history rests, now, in peace. One hopes. But the future is certainly watching us—what we do, what we say, and most importantly, what we write. Almost none of it will go unconsidered, uncritiqued; and that’s a heavy thought. I feel my hands hovering over the keys, uncertain. Small authorial actions now may have big consequences down the line.

I wonder sometimes that there are, in so many times and places and languages, ghosts, the idea of them, and their stories, but in no culture that I am aware of is a name or folklore given for those spirits yet to be. Surely a time lies ahead when we will count the spirits of those who are built, not born, among that great unnamed host.

What is the opposite of ghost? Not “unborn” certainly. To mechanical or electrical beings, the word ‘born’ wouldn’t apply.

I thought, as I wrote “Sentient Being Blues” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], about how much of our language carried our unconscious human biases. The word “humanely” is a prime example, as is “robotically.” How much work lies ahead for us as we reappraise these choices in the presence of real machine intelligence! And I find that, paradoxically, the literature of speculative fiction, in which “artificial intelligence” is such a recurrent and central trope, seems at best oblivious to, and often much worse at, its consideration and handling of these choices. We indeed have much work to do.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the first appearance of robots in literature. Happy birthday, robots. The word comes from a Czech root that means “forced labor.”

Unsurprisingly, robots were invented first in fiction before being engineered into reality. I would argue that this is how almost everything must enter the world—first as fiction, only later as project.

Just as the western, as a writing genre, matured when it allowed Indigenous people to be full characters, speculative fiction grows richer and more thoughtful as it bestows full charactership to robots. Some beautiful and moving examples of that already exist, but it is far from uniform, or even prevalent.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them.

Let me also say upfront that I find it hard to believe a lot of the stories written from a robot’s point of view, even the most recent ones. I love those stories and their human authors, but that makes the stories no more credible.

The premise that we can simulate every mode of thought, or even describe it, in the framework of human narration, is itself suspect. The premium we pay for every robot point of view we fake is a little less ability to imagine the real thing.

That’s one reason why the point of view for “Sentient Being Blues” had to float over to Thom. His was a voice I could write; his was a point of view I could understand, or at least fake believably. An own-voice for me that I felt justified writing—that of an avaricious, unconcerned human. Thom has more of an arc, because he has farther to go, but it’s at its root a story about a robot, XJB, and how it is moved to create art to reduce human suffering, and how later it finds a safe haven in which to practice that art.

“Bluesman,” “postman,” “chairperson”—all these human-centered words will need to be changed one day soon. “Sentient Being Blues” is dedicated to Robert Belfour, who was a sentient being, surely, and a bluesman. I had gotten to listening obsessively to the two extant albums he recorded, and particularly during the Trump years, his voice, so truth-laden and powerful, spoke to me of the conditions in my own city, and the mood carried in the minds of the humans whose paths I crossed there.

I listened, as I crossed the difficult middle ground of creation, when I knew the characters were good, the story was good, but I could not arrive at a fitting ending. This was excruciating. But I am most pleased with my own stories when they “run away from me,” when the ending takes me somewhere different than I had initially envisioned; “Sentient Being Blues” is certainly one of those. This is the work that a reading audience is ostensibly paying us to do—what we are called to do, as writers—and anything less feels, and is, insufficient.

My beta readers, my thanks and God bless them all, can attest to my several failed attempts.

The assumptions we bring into stories are human assumptions, this ending says to me, and those assumptions won’t serve when we are confronted by actual machine intelligence. XJB is satisfied by the way things turn out, while we may not be.

But when we let go and admit the prospect of machine intelligence distinct from us, we lift ourselves up as well. Whose hands built these beautiful mechanisms, whose intelligence provided the first plans, the first spark? And don’t we want to share all that is beautiful and strange in this cosmos? Don’t we long for a partner to share our labors and joys?

I can also think of robot characters, written by humans, characters who are curious and truthful and passionate and kind, who are not just targets for human fears or rage. Those characters will speak for us, into the uncertain but fast-rushing future.

It’s too much to ask, to write a story that will make a robot cry. It will not be among their faculties, for a great many of them, at least. That is our fault. But I hope, to some small degree, that future readers of many kinds, kinds varied and wondrous, will hear a bit of themselves in XJB’s voice.

Christopher Mark Rose (curiousful.wordpress.com and Twitter @CChrisrose) lives in Baltimore with his spouse, two children, and one crazy dog. He is a founder of, and impresario for, Charm City Spec, a reading series in speculative fiction. The author’s own fiction has appeared in Escape Pod and Interzone; and he’s sold nonfiction and poetry to Uncanny and Little Blue Marble. Chris attended Viable Paradise XXIII, where teachers Max Gladstone and Daryl Gregory, along with Chris’s fellow students, performed a blues song written by XJB—the robot character in “Sentient Being Blues.”

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