It might surprise some of the people who know me, but I have a stronger and more lasting affinity for robots than any other kind of “monster”. Yes, even zombies. Don’t be fooled, robots are monsters. Whether it’s buckets of bolts, riveted together, cyborgs that are part human, or androids. Whether you’re talking about old-school Cylons, with clanging metal parts, or the new breed that are indistinguishable from humans, they are the same: cold-hearted, mechanical monstrosities.
Let’s be clear here. Go back to the earliest ‘robot’ archetype I know of, the Golem. What is it? A living statue, made of clay. It knows nothing but holy scriptures, which are written on paper and stuffed into its head. Yeah, programmed, just like a robot. You know what else is like a robot? Robots. The first mentions of them, as autonomous worker machines, describes them as being trained to do simple repetitive tasks. By the time you get around to Robby the Robot, Gort and C3PO, robots are well established in the conventions of science fiction. But, I maintain, their central characteristic is one of pure, inhuman horror.
What do you call a something that looks, acts and behaves like a human being, but has no feelings or emotions? A sociopath? A psychopath? Serial killer? A monster. That’s what robots are really all about, to me. The complete loss of identity, or fundamental humanity, dressed up in the appearance of a person. It’s got more terrifying potential than zombies, if you ask me. Robots don’t want to eat your brains, or steal your job at the factory. They lack the lustful appeal of vampires. We can’t identify with their primal nature, like we might with a werewolf. No. Robots just do whatever they were programed to do. And they don’t care about a damn thing.
We just passed the 100th birthday of Jack Finney, the man who wrote The Body Snatchers – which later became Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I can’t think of a better description of replicant replacements for humanity than “pod people”. Go back and watch that original 1956 thriller again. The fact that the villains are alien plants doesn’t change a thing for me. They are automatons – robots strike again.
From the days when I was a wee tot, the idea of robots has fascinated me. Among my first recollections are live-action Japanese actors in rubber and metal costumes, fighting over the fate of the Earth on our black & white television. Had that been the last or best impression the concept of artificial life-forms had on my still-forming mind, I doubt robots would have stuck with me. But there were more – so many more – and much, much better. They have become ubiquitous staples of science fiction and adventure tales, but as we move further into the 21st Century, the idea of robots is less and less ‘speculative’.
You can get toy robots to play with. There are robots that can sweep or mop your floors. Robots built your car. They are real and no one seems to mind much at all. Take a look at cartoons, comic books and movies. Robots everywhere. Wall-E? Amazing movie, captivating and beautiful to look at and it’s all about robots. Yeah. It’s robot propaganda, that’s what it is.
You can call me crazy if you want. I don’t mind. I’m certainly not going to spend my days screaming out warnings, like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion. And maybe we’ll end up getting one of those fancy Roomba things. But I’ll never trust ‘em, no way.
Patrick Jennings-Mapp is a co-founder of and an editor for Escape Collective Publishing. Ever since he had his tonsils removed, he’s suspected that he, himself, was really a robot. That’s a pretty deep rabbit hole, don’t you think?