Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Rise of the Machines: A Selection of Literary Robots

On this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I talked about some of my favourite literary robots (including cyborgs and A.I.). I don’t know whether this was inspired by the anniversary of Judgment Day, or the fact that I had a couple of conversations about A.I. this week with my other hat on, or just the fact that I’m quite fascinated by robots! Whatever the inspiration was, you can listen to the show again on the player at the bottom of this post. And, as promised, here’s the list of books discussed on air this Saturday.

Did I miss your favourite robot? Let me know in the comments!

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek (1920)

Čapek’s influential science fiction play premiered in January 1921, and was first translated and adapted for the English stage in 1923. It introduces us to Rossum’s island factory, which makes artificial humans which are called ‘robots’ (though they aren’t the mechanical androids of later fiction, but rather artificially created biological organisms). ‘Old’ Rossum was a biologist, who came to the island in 1920 to study marine life. However, he discovered a chemical that he believed would allow him to make animals, and he began to experiment. When his nephew (‘Young’ Rossum) arrived on the island, he simply saw the potential for making money. making – Young Rossum locked his uncle in his laboratory, while he made robots. In the play’s ‘present’ (around 2000), robots and now commonplace and cheap. Helena Glory, the daughter of the president of a major industrial nation, travels to the island and is shown around by the General Manager, before she reveals that she is a member of the League of Humanity, who wishes to free the robots. The events that follow examine the relationship/boundaries between humans and artificial intelligence, but also the (im)possibility of co-existence.

No discussion of robots in fiction could be complete without a discussion of Čapek’s play, as it introduced the word ‘robot’ into our lexicon. Robota is derived from a Czech word meaning forced labour or serfdom – which really sets a particular scene for all human/robot relationships that follow. The play was first translated into English by Paul Selver, and adapted for the English stage by Nigel Playfair in 1923. In February 1938, a BBC adaptation of a section of the play became the first ever piece of science fiction television to be broadcast.

Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907)

Okay, so I talked about this book a bit on my Chick Lit Special, but I decided to include Return to Oz (the novelization of the 1985 film) on that reading list. I guess that leaves me free to add Ozma of Oz to this list! This is the third book in Baum’s Oz series, and the first book in which most of the action takes place outside the land of Oz. It’s also the first book to introduce Tik-Tok, who has been described as ‘the prototype robot’. On accidentally rocking up in the Land of Ev, Dorothy Gale discovers Tik-Tok in bad shape in a cave. Made of copper, clockwork, and unable to wind himself up, Tik-Tok is definitively not alive, and cannot feel emotions. After he’s been wound up, he describes himself as Dorothy’s ‘slave’, though this seems to be meant as a positive assertion of devotion.

I mentioned on my Chick Lit show that I was always very unsettled by Tik-Tok in Return to Oz. He always seems liked a kind of ‘wrong’ version of the Tin Man from the original story, and I never trusted him. I’m not the only person to find Tik-Tok somewhat sinister, as modern stories inspired by Baum’s creation are often rather dark. In Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, ‘tik-tok’ becomes a word used to describe any automaton. The main tik-tok in the book is Grommetik, who has… issues, shall we say? And in his 1983 novel, Tik-Tok, John Sladek reimagines the character as a chaotic and murderous creation. To be honest, though, I still find Baum’s version the scariest. And I still don’t trust him.

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

In a way, this next book needs little introduction, as it’s title has become a by-word for robotic feminine conformity. However, in another way, it does need some introduction, as many people are far more familiar with the film adaptations. Levin’s novel introduces us to Joanna Eberhart, a photographer newly arrived in Stepford, Connecticut from New York City. While her husband Walter and her children settle in, Joanna becomes disturbed by aspects of their new neighbourhood. She befriends Bobbie (a bit of a slob) and Charmaine (a woman who would rather leave housework to her maid, so she can just play tennis all day), but finds many of her other neighbours… a bit odd. Walter begins to spend most of his time at the Stepford Man’s Association and dismisses her concerns. When Joanna notices neighbours and friends transforming into docile housewives, she realises that something is very wrong in Stepford.

There have been two film adaptation of The Stepford Wives. The first was made in 1975, and starred Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss and Peter Masterson. The second, made in 2004, stars Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler, but it almost entirely misses the point of Levin’s satirical (and rather horrific) novel.

He, She and It by Marge Piercy (1991)

It’s 2059, and all the economic and political power in North America is now held by multi-national corporations (‘multis’), who operate as societies in themselves. Most of the population lives in the slum-like ‘glop’ outside the corporate enclaves, where life is dominated by poverty and gang fighting. The only exceptions to this are the ‘free towns’, who sell technology to the multis but remain autonomous. This is the world Piercy plunges us into in her award-winning novel He, She and It (also published as Body of Glass). Piercy introduces us to Shira, a divorced woman who has lost custody of her son, who leaves the enclave in which she has been living and returns to her hometown of Tikva. Tikva is a Jewish free town, and there Shira’s grandmother Malkah has been working to create Yod, a cyborg intended to protect the city from raiders. Shira is tasked with working on Yod’s socialization, and this develops into a relationship between woman and cyborg. But then Tikva is attacked…

Interwoven with the story of Shira and Yod is the story of Rabbi Judah Loew and the Golem of Prague (which is told to Yod by Malkah, Shira’s grandmother). By bringing these stories together, Piercy creates a cyberpunk exploration of human identity, artificial life, Jewish identity and marginalization. It’s also a story considers questions of gender, ecology, technology and economics through the relationship between a woman, her grandmother and an artificial man.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (2012)

Marissa Meyer’s debut YA novel is – as you might have guessed – loosely based on Cinderella. The story is set in New Beijing, part of a futuristic world in which countries have formed new empires, and the moon has been colonized. Asia is now an empire known as Eastern Commonwealth, and its people have companions androids and cybernetic modications. Our protagonist is Linh Cinder, a cyborg who runs on a market stall. Cinder lives with her stepmother Linh Adri, and her stepsisters Peony and Pearl. A disease known as ‘Blue Fever’ (or letumosis) has been brought by the ‘Lunars’ to earth, and there is no known cure. When Linh Peony falls ill, Adri ‘volunteers’ Cinder for ‘plague research’. But it turns out Cinder is immune to letumosis – is there something she doesn’t know? Are there secrets in Cinder’s past to be discovered? Through the research of Dr Erland, as well as that of Prince Kai, heir to the Eastern Commonwealth, Cinder has to build herself an identity to survive.

Meyer followed Cinder with a series of sequels (known as The Lunar Chronicles), which continue Cinder’s story: Scarlet (2013), Cress (2014), Fairest (2015) and Winter (2015). Each of the books offers a loose retelling of a fairy tale, namely Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White.

Konpyuta ga shosetsu wo kaku hi [The Day a Computer Writes a Novel] by Hitoshi Matsubara and friends (2016)

And finally, something a little different. The Japanese novel The Day a Computer Writes a Novel is told from the perspective of a sentient AI who discovers enjoyment in creative writing and decides to break free of his programming and cease serving humans. The reason the book made international news is that it was… actually written by a robot. (Well, it was generated by an A.I. programme.) More surprisingly, the book got though the first round of the Japanese Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award! It seems a robot came very close to winning a literary award!

But all is not quite as it was reported in the Anglophone press… Hitoshi Matsubara and (human) team actually programmed in much of the novel (including character and plot outlines). And the whole point of the Hoshi Literary Award is to encourage submissions from AI (plus space aliens and animals), as the award was set up in memory of Shinichi Hoshi, a Japanese science fiction writer known for his short story collection The Whimsical [or Capricious] Robot. You can read more about the book and the award here.

While I would have loved to end the show with a novel actually written by a robot, it seems that was not meant to be. A.I. just can’t replace humans when it comes to creative writing… at least, not yet.

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:


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