Recovered Writing: My First Professional, Academic Presentation, “Monstrous Robots: Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade as Humans,” Monstrous Bodies Symposium, March 31-April 1, 2005

This is the thirtieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Almost nine years ago, I gave my first academic conference presentation at the Monstrous Bodies Symposium—a continuation of Science Fiction-focused initiatives at Georgia Tech by Professor Lisa Yaszek. In addition to presenting, I organized the academic track of the symposium and recorded the sessions for the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture (now, Literature, Media, and Communication). After my presentation below, I am including a press release for the symposium that describes it in more detail along with our special guests: Paul di Filippo and Rhonda Wilcox.

My presentation, “Monstrous Robots: Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade as Humans,” continues the work that I began in the SF Lab the previous year and  continued in my undergraduate thesis later. These ideas figured large throughout the close of my undergraduate degree and my MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. By the time that I was well into my PhD at Kent State University, I began thinking along parallel lines in terms of human-computer interaction and its effect on human brains and the “minds” of computers. Instead of thinking of doppelgängers and opposition, I reframed my thinking around co-evolution, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience of mind, and human-computer interaction. This presentation is another step in the development of my thinking and self along these lines.

Later, I will post another version of this essay that was revised for my first SFRA Conference in White Plains, NY in 2006.

Jason W. Ellis

Monstrous Bodies Symposium 2005

31 March 2005

Monstrous Robots:  Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade As Humans

Robots who masquerade as human in science fiction (SF) are monstrous bodies because they are humanity’s created doppelganger of itself and as a result they reflect the best and the worst of what it means to be human.   These technological appropriations of what it means to be human are important because they are a space within SF where issues about the encroaching of science and technology on the borders of the human body after the end of World War II.

In order to explore these issues, I want to begin by defining the terminology that I will be using.  I define doppelganger as an unnatural double of a person or of humanity.  Human-like robots are the doppelganger of humanity because they mimic what it means to be human.  They appear human and they must perform themselves accordingly.  This doppelganger is haunting because its existence challenges what it means to be human.  If someone acts human and looks human why is there any reason to question the validity of that person’s humanity?  The answer is that:  the existence of human-like robots makes the very concept of humanity suspect.  Robots are the product of their creators.  The double mirrors its creator by reflecting an extreme of human behavior.  This reflection is called dualism.  I define dualism as a doubled status such as good and evil or organic and synthetic.  Human-like robots are either very good or very bad and this is determined by the nature of their creators.  Therefore, these robots tell us a great deal about the nature of their creators.

I will be examining two examples of human-like robots in SF literature and film.  The first is Isaac Asimov’s “humaniform” robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, from the Robot, Empire, and Foundation series of novels.  Daneel is best described as an android because he is a robot made in the appearance of a man.  His outer skin is not organic in nature.  The second human-like robot is James Cameron’s original Terminator from the film of the same name.  The Terminator is best called a cyborg because he is a fusion of man and machine (organic skin and hair covering a robotic interior).  The former is an example of a good android and the latter is an example of a bad cyborg.  These characters are doubles of humanity in their respective stories and they are also mirrors of one another.

Asimov began writing the robot novels that feature R. Daneel Olivaw in the 1950s, during the first phase of the Cold War.  The novels take place in a far future where humans have colonized a significant portion of the galaxy.  Although the robots are instrumental in the process of colonization, humans remain fiercely divided on whether or not robots should exist at all.  Given that Asimov himself was very much in favor of the promising new technologies of his day (e.g., automation in manufacturing and computers), it is not surprising that he picks the robots in his novels to be utopic in nature.  His robots are the embodiment of these new technologies.  In order to make his robots “perfect people,” he constructed his robots with the Three Laws of Robotics that he first made explicit in his short story, “Runaround:”

(1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

(2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. (I, Robot 44-45)

The Three Laws provided each robot with an ethical system that must be obeyed because it is hardwired into its positronic brain.  Therefore, Asmovian robots represent the best of what humans can be, but at the same time they reveal what we are not.

R. Daneel Olivaw is what Asimov termed a “humaniform” robot.  Daneel has the appearance of a human from one of the fifty Spacer worlds (i.e., worlds originally populated by Earth people during a period of expansion in our future).  Daneel’s partner in the novels The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn is Elijah Baley, a detective from Earth.  In The Caves of Steel, Baley describes Daneel as appearing “completely human” (83).  He later says, “The Spacers in those pictures had been, generally speaking, like those that were occasionally featured in the bookfilms:  tall, red-headed, grave, coldly handsome.  Like  R. Daneel Olivaw, for instance” (94).  Baley even suggests that Daneel is secretly Dr. Sarton, the Spacer found dead in The Caves of Steel.  This however is not the case.  Daneel was modeled after Dr. Sarton’s appearance.  This revelation leads to Daneel revealing what lies beneath.  In Dr. Han Fastolfe’s office, “R. Daneel pinched the ball of his right middle finger with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand…just as the fabric of the sleeve had fallen in two when the diagmagnetic field of its seam had been interrupted, so now the arm itself fell in two…There, under a thin layer of fleshlike material, was the dull blue gray of stainless steel rods, cords, and joints” (The Caves of Steel 111).  As Baley passes out from the shock, the fact that the “R.,” which stands for “Robot,” in front of Daneel’s name is in fact deserved!

The broadest doubling that involves Daneel is that he is a mirror for humanity.  When a character becomes aware of Daneel’s true being, it destabilizes that character’s understanding of the difference between robot and human.  Most of Asimov’s robots are very metal and very plastic.  They are the epitome of synthetic.  Daneel’s construction sets him apart from the apparent synthetic robots because he appeared to be human.  Elijah Baley first greets Daneel at Spacetown thinking that he is a Spacer.  Later Baley says to his superior, Commissioner Julius Enderby, “You might have warned me that he looked completely human” and he goes on to say “I’d never seen a robot like that and you had.  I didn’t even know such things were possible” (The Caves of Steel 83).  Elijah and most other humans are not aware that a human form robot was a possibility.  Although Elijah comes to terms with Daneel, other characters are driven to destroy humaniform robots.  Elijah’s wife is secretly a member of the Medievalists, a group that wants to do away with all robots, including Daneel.  Commissioner Enderby, also a Medievalist, murders Dr. Sarton, not because he wants to kill Sarton, but because he mistakes him for Daneel.

Daneel is also the double of his human partner, Elijah Baley.  Before Elijah meets Daneel, he is confident in his own abilities as a detective.  After he partners with Daneel, however, he begins to call into question his own abilities and talents.  Robots are meant to be superior to humans and Elijah extends this to his own profession that is now being intruded on by an android.  Baley is narrating at the beginning of The Caves of Steel:

The trouble was, of course, that he was not the plain-clothes man of popular myth.  He was not incapable of surprise, imperturbable of appearance, infinite of adaptability, and lightning of mental grasp.  He had never supposed he was, but he had never regretted the lack before.

What made him regret it was that, to all appearances, R. Daneel Olivaw was that very myth, embodied.

He had to be.  He was a robot (The Caves of Steel 26-27).

This anxiety is one of the motivating factors behind The Robots of Dawn, when Elijah is brought in to investigate the murder of a humaniform robot like Daneel.  If Elijah fails, he will loose his job and be declassified.  The fear of declassification is dire to Elijah because he had seen his own father declassified when he was only a boy.  Therefore, the existence of humaniform robots creates the situation that elicits this fear in Elijah.  Eventually Elijah warms up to his robot partner, but along the way Elijah often finds ways to make himself feel superior to robots by making Daneel follow unnecessary orders or by calling other robots by the derogatory label, “boy” (The Robots of Dawn 34).

James Cameron’s Terminator is a cyborg character that is born of a different cultural moment than Asimov’s robots.  The Terminator was originally released in 1984 while the Cold War was still in full swing and Ronald Reagan had been reelected President of the United States.  Even more significantly, The Terminator was riding the wave of office computing and robotic manufacturing.  Whereas Asimov viewed technology in utopic terms, Cameron only sees these technological advances as dystopic.  The Terminator would have been a film that the Medievalists of Asimov’s Robot novels would have lauded.

After the opening scene of the future wasteland of 2029, the Terminator arrives naked in Los Angeles of 1984.  J. P. Telotte writes that the “film’s title implies that its central concern is the technological threat, embodied in a killer cyborg which, for all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s excess muscularity, disconcertingly blends in with the human:  speaks our language, crudely follows our basic customs, acts in roughly effective ways.  In fact, the film emphasizes just how easy it is to ‘pass’ for human in a world that judges that status so superficially” (172).  The Terminator has been given instructions to kill Sarah Connor in 1984 in order to prevent the birth of her future child who will lead humanity to victory over the machines.  He goes about doing this in a militarily calculated manner.  He obtains the weaponry and clothes that his mission requires.  The Terminator uses his human appearance and voice to blend into mid-1980s California.  Despite his robotic core, he is able to perform himself as human effectively enough to maintain the belief that he is human to those who passively interact with him.  Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, the man sent back in time to save her, are the only persons that know what the Terminator really is.

The Terminator is a chillingly evil double of humanity.  Through the first part of the film the audience does not yet know exactly what lies beneath his skin.  We are treated to his superior strength, but only later in the film, after he has sustained damage, do we really begin to understand what lies beneath the surface.  The hard metal robot body that is under the soft organic skin is the true nature of the Terminator.  Without the skin he looks like the killing machines that greet the audience at the beginning of the movie.  The shining flying machines and the bone crunching treads of the tank are siblings of the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator.  The Terminator is the result of the military-industrial complex losing control of Skynet, a computer network of control and command systems that were integrated into the implements of American war making.  After Skynet becomes self-aware, it views humanity as its only threat.  Skynet then acts in its own best interest by appropriating humanities’ weapons of war in order to eliminate its creator.  In contrast to Asimov’s robots, the Terminator seems to be the direct result of machine rather than human construction.  In the movie, Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines, smaller versions of the flying Terminator and tank Terminator are revealed to have been developed before Skynet launches its nuclear attack.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the cyborg Terminators were developed by Skynet for the purpose of infiltrating pockets of human habitation to wreak havoc by undermining the belief that what appears human actually is.  Again, the cyborg Terminator, like R. Daneel Olivaw, threatens what it means to be human by destabilizing the criteria used to determine human from machine.  But Cameron’s view is diametrically opposite Asimov’s in respect to machine agency.  Asimov’s robots are dedicated to helping humanity, but Cameron’s Skynet becomes self-aware on its own without any safeguards in place.  In Cameron’s look at the future, humanity loses control to the machines and must take that control back.

Another doubling is between the Terminator and Sarah’s protector, Kyle Reese.  The most obvious difference is that Reese is much smaller than the Terminator.  Additionally, Reese feels pain and he can be injured.  The Terminator sustains damage but it unrelentingly follows it programming.  Because of the limitations placed on time-travel, neither Reese nor the Terminator can bring any weaponry with them into the past.  The Terminator takes his weapons indiscriminately from a gun shop and in turn kills the proprietor.  Reese takes his first weapon, a revolver, from a police officer and then he takes his second, a shotgun, from a parked police cruiser.  The other weapons that Reese and Sarah use are hand made explosives.  Reese uses ingenuity and resourcefulness to match the brute force onslaught of the Terminator.  In effect, the Terminator itself is a weapon.

An interesting mirroring in The Terminator is between the machines and Sarah Conner.  On one level, the Terminator is the destructor.  Its mission is to go into the past and eradicate any instance of a “Sarah Connor” in the Los Angeles area.  Sarah, on the other hand, is told that she will give birth to John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance.  The Terminator tries to kill the woman who is capable of creation.  On a broader level, Skynet is capable of creation through production.  Skynet must have a means for building Terminators (cyborgs, airplanes, and tanks) and it must also have some creative capabilities because it created the mechanism for traveling into the past.  Thus, Skynet and Sarah follow parallels in that each stand for their species and point toward the future.  Skynet wants to maintain its existence and the existence of its machine armies.  Sarah wants to live and know that humanity will continue with the help of her yet-to-be-born son, John.  The Terminator, as a creation of Skynet, is the means by which Skynet can strike at Sarah because Skynet and Sarah’s futures are mutually exclusive.  Within the frame of the movies, machines and human beings are not meant to live together in harmony.  Another doubling between Sarah and the Terminator is that they are both covered in some way.  Telotte points out, “If the gradual stripping away of the Terminator’s human seeming warns us not to judge an android by its cover, the gradual emergence of Sarah’s character and potential as she responds to this threat reminds us that it is no more reliable to judge the human self by its various cultural trappings” (173).  His true robotic interior is revealed throughout the progression of the movie.  This is done “by seeing for ourselves how he sees…for the point-of-view shots reveal that the Terminator does not “see” images but merely gathers ‘information'” (Pyle 232).  Additionally, the Terminator’s flesh is stripped away through gunfights and explosions that eventually reveal the cold metal of its endoskeleton.  Sarah’s cultural coverings are removed as well as she shifts from clumsy waitress that freezes at the sight of the Terminator to technologically adept mother of the future who triumphantly crushes the machine in a hydraulic press.

Finally, Cameron’s Terminator is the doppelganger of Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw.  The Terminator works toward the domination of machines over humanity whereas Daneel works cooperatively with humans such as his partner and friend, Elijah Baley.  The text at the beginning of The Terminator states, “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.  Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.  It would be fought here, in our present.  Tonight.”  The machines (i.e., Skynet and the Terminator) mean to “exterminate mankind.”  On the other hand, Patricia Warrick writes, “The…robot detective novels…illustrate Asimov’s faith that man and machine can form a harmonious relationship” (61).  Both have their robotic selves hidden under a layer of flesh.  They perform themselves as human in order to fit in with the cultural surroundings in which they find themselves (e.g., 1980s Los Angeles or Asimov’s Earth encased in “caves of steel”).   The Terminator means to destroy humanity while Daneel wishes to work along side humanity.

Both R. Daneel Olivaw and the Terminator are doppelgangers of humanity, other characters in their respective works, and each other.  They maintain a human appearance and performance in order to pass as human to the casual observer.  R. Daneel Olivaw is given his “humaniform” appearance in order to work with humans (both Spacer and Earth person alike).  The Terminator uses his appearance as a sort of disguise in order to infiltrate humanity in order to kill from within.  Daneel represents the very best of human nature through cooperation and a moral imperative.  The Terminator represents the very worst of humanity through death dealing and a lack of moral standing. Despite the best intentions of Daneel, who was built the way he was, he is still viewed as a threat by some.  The Terminator, who also had no choice in his appearance, is a real threat to humanity because he uses his appearance to get closer to his prey.  Therefore, the bodies of R. Daneel Olivaw and the Terminator are examples of monstrous bodies in SF because they assume an appearance and identity that destabilizes what it means to be human and in so doing they each have a unique nature that is dependent on that of their creators.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac.  The Caves of Steel.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1954.

—.  I, Robot.  New York:  Gnome Press, 1950.

—.  The Naked Sun.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1957.

—.  The Robots of Dawn.  New York:  Doubleday, 1983.

Pyle, Forest.  “Making Cyborgs, Making Humans:  Of Terminators and Blade Runners.”    Film Theory Goes to the Movies.  Ed. Jim Collins, et al.  New York:  Routledge,            1993.  227-241.

Short, Sue.  “The Measure of a Man?:  Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Star Trek’s Data, and     Being Human.”  Extrapolation 44:2 (Summer 2003):  209-223.

Telotte, J.P.  Replications:  A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film.  Urbana, IL:         University of Illinois Press, 1995.

The Terminator.  Dir. James Cameron.  Orion Pictures, 1984.

Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines.  Dir. Jonathan Mostow.  Warner Bros., 2003.

Warrick, Patricia S.  The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction.  Cambridge, MA:         MIT Press, 1980.

——————–

Monstrous Bodies Press Release

What:  “Monstrous Bodies in Science, Fiction, and Culture: Celebrating 25 Years of the Fantastic in the Arts at Georgia Tech”

When:  March 31-April 1, 2005

Where:  Bill Moore Student Success Center and the Skiles Building, Georgia Institute of Technology

From March 31st through April 1st the School of Literature, Communication and Culture (LCC) will host a two-day symposium in which participants explore the meaning of monstrous bodies in science, fiction, and culture. The symposium, which will take place in the Bill Moore Student Success Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is free of charge and open to all interested parties.

The symposium celebrates both LCC’s ongoing commitment to the study of the fantastic in the arts and, more specifically, the pivotal role that LCC Professor Emeritus Irving F. “Bud” Foote played in shaping this commitment. Foote taught the first accredited science fiction class at Tech in the early 1970s and over the course of the next two decades brought a number of science fiction writers to Tech including Frederik Pohl, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Upon his retirement in 1997 Foote donated 8000 science fiction-related items to the Georgia Tech Library, and the Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection was born. With additional gifts from Georgia Tech alumni and science fiction authors such as David Brin and Kathleen Ann Goonan, the Bud Foote Collection is now one of the twenty largest research collections of its kind.

The Monstrous Bodies symposium will commemorate both Professor Foote’s legacy and LCC’s continued dedication to the study of the fantastic in the arts by featuring student research on and creative writing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the gothic. The symposium will also include art and film exhibits as well as presentations by local scholars, science fiction writers, editors, publishers, and artists from Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late-night cartoon programming for adult audiences.

Our special guests of honor are two leading figures in fantastic art and scholarship: science fiction author Paul di Filippo and popular culture expert Rhonda Wilcox. In 2004 Di Filippo received the Prix L’Imaginaire for his short story “Sisyphus and the Stranger”; other stories have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Philip K. Dick, Wired Magazine, and World Fantasy Awards as well. Wilcox is the author of the forthcoming book Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Television and coeditor of Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.

If you have any other questions or comments, contact conference coordinator Prof. Lisa Yaszek or conference assistant Amelia Shackelford.

For more information

On the symposium, please visit http://monstrousbodies.lcc.gatech.edu;

On the Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection, please visit http://sf.lcc.gatech.edu;

On previous student work in the Bud Foote Collection, please visit http://sciencefiction.lcc.gatech.edu.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Georgia Tech, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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