There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.
The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.
While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.
Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.
Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.
Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.
Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.
Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.
Sometimes, when you’re working on a piece of fiction, and you’re wondering perhaps if this marvellous plan you have in your head and you’re trying to get down is a) achievable and b) not going to result in ridicule from all those who will read it… Sometimes, when you’re in that space, an artistic decision turns out to be just so right, you can’t help but feel it really is going to work after all. This has happened for all of the Apollo Quartet… and today I had my moment of serendipity for the fourth book, All That Outer Space Allows.
The protagonist of the story – it will be a short novel rather than a novella, around 50,000 to 60,000 words – is a science fiction writer, and she is married to a test pilot who is selected by NASA for the Apollo programme. For one scene, I needed the names of some women sf writers who had had stories published in 1965. One of the names I picked was Josephine Saxton – her debut, ‘The Wall’, appeared in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. I wanted my protagonist to say something about the story after reading it, but I didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, it was collected in The Power of Time and I found a copy of the book on eBay. So I bought it…
The collection arrived the following day, I read ‘The Wall’… and discovered its central metaphor fitted in perfectly with the general shape of All That Outer Space Allows.
I love it when that happens.
On the other hand… I remember sitting in the Bijoux Bar in the Raddison Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, the day after the launch of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and describing to Maureen Kincaid Speller the plot of All That Outer Space Allows. Yes, even back in April 2012, I knew what it was about and what the title would be. But now I’m about a quarter of the way into writing it, and it’s shaping up somewhat differently to that original plan. For a start, it’s proving to more about science fiction, and the history of science fiction, than I had intended. It’s also going to be more of a work of imagination than the preceding three books, chiefly because I can find no direct documentation I can use to help me evoke the time and place. For example, I can tell you the average temperature on 1 April 1966 in Lancaster, California, was 66.8°F, but I’ve found only a handful of photos online of the city taken during that year. And, of course, astronauts wives are not as well documented as the astronauts themselves. I’m having to do my research by reading between the lines…
But if it was easy, I wouldn’t do it. Would I?
I fell in love with Malcolm Lowry’s fiction after reading the novella ‘Through the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961). While I’d been aware of his Under the Volcano (1947), a novel generally acknowledged to be a classic of twentieth century English-language literature, number 11 in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in fact (ignore the readers’ list: only blatant ballot-stuffing or rank stupidity could put four books by Ayn Rand and three by L Ron Hubbard in the top ten), I had never actually read anything by him. But my father had three of his books – the aforementioned pair and Lowry’s debut, Ultramarine (1933); the two novels are in fact the only books Lowry saw published during his lifetime – and I took them for myself as I fancied giving them a try…
And now I have everything he wrote – a lot of which was published posthumously – some of it even in first edition (but not Under the Volcano, since first editions of it cost around £800).
But. ‘Through the Panama’, which first appeared in Paris Review in Spring 1960 – it’s unlikely Malcolm Lowry, who died in 1957, submitted it himself; it was more probably his wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry – features Malcolm Lowry’s fictional alter-ego Sigbjørn Wilderness, and is a complex mix of fiction, autobiography and meta-fiction. It’s an astonishing piece of work but, as I soon discovered when I read Ultramarine, Under the Volcano and the posthumous Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968), it’s actually more like a concentrated form of Malcolm Lowry’s approach to writing. Ultramarine was based on his experiences aboard a tramp freighter, aboard which he spent five months at age eighteen before starting at Cambridge University. Some of his experiences which appeared in Ultramarine also make an appearance – off-stage – in Under the Volcano, although reading the prior book is by no means a requirement for reading Under the Volcano.
But it’s in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid where really interesting things start to happen… You’ll have to bear with me for a bit as this is somewhat complicated… Malcolm Lowry started work on Under the Volcano while staying in Mexico in 1936, and finished it two years later. He left Mexico for Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Margerie; and then spent the next eight years editing and rewriting the novel. It’s set in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, and covers the events of single day in the life of the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic, whose divorced wife has just returned to him. In 1945, Malcolm and Margerie Lowry returned to Mexico (a return for him, anyway), and settled in the town of Cuernavaca. During this time, Under the Volcano was under consideration with a British publisher, and Malcolm was worried it might be seen as too similar to Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel, The Lost Weekend, the film adaptation of which, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, and directed Billy Wilder, was proving a hit in the cinemas as Malcolm and Margerie travelled south from their home in Canada. The trip to Mexico proved successful both personally and professional - although Malcolm’s drinking did reach similar levels to those of his earlier visit to Mexico and those attributed to the Consul in Under the Volcano… However, while in Cuernavaca, Malcolm heard back from Jonathan Cape, who asked for substantial changes to be made to Under the Volcano before they would publish it… but Malcolm successfully defended his novel with a long and detailed analysis of it. Malcolm also took copious notes throughout the Mexico trip and, once back in Canada, he realised these were effectively a novel. So he set about turning them into one, and he worked on it on-and-off, until his death in 1957. The book was eventually edited by Margerie and published in 1968 as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid.
In Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn Wilderness and his wife Primrose have returned to Mexico eight years after Sigbjørn left. He is awaiting news from a British publisher about his novel, The Valley of the Shadow of Death (which was actually the original title for Under the Volcano), and is worried that it might be rejected due to similarities to the novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon. The couple travel from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, which Sigbjørn now discovers has chosen to publicise that its name in Nahuatl is Cuauhnahuac, a fact he’d eight years previously taken great pains to uncover and had thought would “disguise” the setting of his novel. While in Cuernavaca, Sigbjørn explains the town’s relationship to the setting of The Valley of the Shadow of Death to his wife – she is familiar with the story as she typed up the manuscript – and begins drinking heavily, much like Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano.
So what we have is Malcolm Lowry writing a novel in which he appears as Sigbjørn Wilderness, who is the author of a book Malcolm Lowry himself wrote, which is set in the Mexican town which is the setting of both Under the Volcano and Sigbjørn’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and this novel Malcolm Lowry has written is based upon Malcolm Lowry’s own return visit to the town where he wrote, and in which he set, his most famous work, Under the Volcano. Sigbjørn and Primrose also visit some of the nearby towns and villages, such as Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and Yautepec, and each place is seen in light of Sigbjørn’s previous time in Mexico and his fictionalisation of it in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The same is also true of the people they meet, and their relationship to the characters in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Some two-thirds of the way into Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Sigbjørn hears back form his publishers – they want him to make substantial changes. Primrose persuades him to stick to his guns and defend his novel, which he does.
“Your book is regarded here as having potential importance and integrity.” His heart leaped, he almost shouted out to Primrose, who was as excited as he and waiting for the verdict in the bedroom, but – at this point, another letter fell out. It was the reader’s report, and he seized upon it. “The author has overrreached himself. This book will naturally call to mind the recently successful novel and film Drunkard’s Rigadoon…” (p179)
Structurally, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is not so adventurous – it’s a linear narrative, beginning as Sigbjørn and Primrose fly south across the United States, and ending with Sigbjørn finally laying to rest the ghost of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, or perhaps of its inspirations and writing, which has haunted him throughout this visit to Mexico. But it’s the melding of real-life and fiction which I find so fascinating about the book. Under the Volcano was at least, on the surface, a straightforward act of literary creativity. While its settings and cast may have been inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s own time in Mexico during its writing from 1936 to 1938, it was still first and foremost a novel. (Which is not to say that it’s not partly autobiographical, as Malcolm Lowry had certainly done that before in Ultramarine.) But in Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid Malcolm Lowry has fictionalised the autobiographical elements of his fiction, folding what was real in the invented back into an invented perspective of the real. And that I find a very interesting thing to do. It allows for a whole host of meta-fictional games to be played within the text – and Malcolm Lowry plays most of them: not just Sigbjørn commenting on The Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is effectively Malcolm Lowry himself commenting on Under the Volcano, but also Malcolm Lowry as author commenting on Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid and on Sigbjørn Wilderness. Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid can be enjoyed as a work of fiction without having read Under the Volcano, but it’s plain that reading Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus first deeply enriches the Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid reading experience.
Malcolm Lowry’s reputation waned after the publication of Under the Volcano, chiefly because he had nothing else published in the years following (and Under the Volcano had taken him nine years and two months to write). He became known as an “underground” writer, one admired only by the cognoscenti. After his death, Margerie Lowry kept his literary legacy alive, and saw to it that works he had never quite actually finished were edited and published… such as Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest English-language writers of the twentieth century.
I recently finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which was not published as science fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award last year. In it, a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population of the US, and the survivors have, of course, turned to warlordism and survivalism. It’s not a very good book – its presence on that shortlist is, frankly, mystifying. One character appears to be ripped off from John Goodman’s part, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski; and the narrator apparently suffered minor brain damage previously from a bout of meningitis and so narrates the novel in mildly-broken English… which serves no purpose in the story at all.
Anyway, warlordism and survivalism… There’s a long tradition of such post-apocalypse tales in science fiction and I’m sure we can all think of at least half-a-dozen examples. I’ve objected before to the assumption that the survivors of any apocalypse would immediately start killing each other, when clearly cooperation is the only sustainable strategy for survival.
And then there’s the dystopia, a much-beloved setting for YA. In almost all cases, a privileged elite enjoy lives of luxury while the bulk of the population either scrabble for a living below the poverty line, or are rigorously oppressed with no freedom to object; or both. I can understand the dystopia’s appeal for the YA market. In order to “break” the setting, which is the point of the story, the protagonist needs to be a super-special snowflake – which not only feeds into teenage narcissism but also relies upon, and reinforces, the risible “Great Man of History” theory, which is itself the sort of nonsense kids believe.
It could be argued that such dystopias only reflect the real world, that their popularity is a symptom of the times we live in. Perhaps that’s true. Certainly the UK is currently governed by a cabal of greedy fascists who are hell-bent on selling off as much of the country as possible to their plutocrat friends. There is not much difference between Downing Street and Panem’s Capitol.
It strikes me that these two branches of science fiction are actually conditioning us to accept our current situation. Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside. Science fiction was once a literature which encouraged change, which explored ways and means to effect changes. Now it’s comfort reading, it makes us feel good about our reduced circumstances because at least we’re not suffering as much as the fictional characters we read about.
And if it’s not apocalypses and dystopias, it’s interplanetary or interstellar wars. Making us feel good about our governments’ military adventurism. And fictional universes that embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way. Which is simply not true.
Once upon a time, science fiction was driven by an outward urge. True, we know a great deal more about our planet and our universe than we did then. But there is still a lot we don’t know – the depths of the oceans, for example, remain mostly unexplored. We’ve found over 1800 exoplanets, but the furthest we’ve trod is our own moon, 400,000 km away – and that was over forty years ago anyway. What happened to that urge? Where are the science fiction novels inspired by it? I can perhaps think of only a handful published in the past twelve to eighteen months which might qualify.
The bulk of sf currently being published seems more designed to accommodate us to our meagre lot. It’s not holding up a mirror to our times, it is complicit with those forces which shape the modern world. It is telling tales to maintain the status quo by showing just how improbable, how impossible, meaningful change is.
A friend is currently trying to put together a list of sf novels about climate change – and it’s perhaps telling that most such science fictions take place after the climate has crashed. It’s almost as if we’re unable to prevent it – it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except, of course, there is. There are lots of things we could do. But certain powerful interests in the modern world don’t want the changes preventing climate crash would entail. So we have become resigned to consuming stories in which climate crash is a faît accompli.
Back in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of his magazine and so created the genre, he saw “scientifiction” as a possible force for good. And it’s certainly true that fiction can have profound effects on the real world – and not just in terms of inspiring nerds to invent new gadgets. These days, however, science fiction has all importance of middle-class fad foodstuffs. We consume it like we consume Greek yoghurt – and it’s not even that, it’s more like a bee flew over a pot which was then filled with curdled milk from a dog they found wandering the back streets of Athens…
So what went wrong? When did we become so resigned to the present, so resigned to our powerlessness, that we began to ignore not only change but the possibility of change in our science fictions? And what can we do about it?
Loncon 3 is now in full swing. I am not there. After spending last weekend in a field in Derbyshire, drinking and watching a number of metal bands perform, I can’t say I’m especially bothered about missing the Worldcon (though I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to meet IRL a few visitors to the UK I know only from online). Bloodstock was good – I think I enjoyed the music more this year than last, even though initially I hadn’t been that keen on the line-up. Highlights were the sets by Obsidian Kingdom and Shining, and the crowd’s performance during Evil Scarecrow’s set. Other good stuff included Orphaned Land (twice), Rotting Christ, Winterfylleth, Old Corpse Road and Voices. The weather behaved – mostly. It hammered down on the Sunday, and everywhere got wet and muddy, but it cleared up by the evening. Security this year was much improved; the toilets were much worse. A good festival, nonetheless.
Meanwhile… these summer months so far have felt spectacularly unproductive, and there have been days when I’ve had trouble working up the enthusiasm to write, edit, or even get started on a book review… Which is not to say I’ve done nothing. It just feels like it. I’m assuming reviews count. I wrote a fair few of those during June and July. Four for SF Mistressworks, in fact: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (here); Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (here); Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (here); and Judgment Night, CL Moore (here). A fifth went up this week – The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (here) – and I have another two suitable books I’ve read but I’ve yet to start on the reviews – Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson; and Second Body, Sue Payer. I also reviewed Extreme Planets, edited by David Conyers, David Kernott & Jeff Harris, for Interzone (the anthology’s publishers really need to sort out its Amazon page); and I have another book sitting on this desk beside my laptop to review for them, which is, er, already late. (I’ll have it done by the end of the week, Jim. Honest.)
Whippleshield Books continues to quietly stumble along. Sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains have just passed 1100, those of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are over 500, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above has to date managed a tardy 200-or-so units sold. I’m determined to get the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, out before the end of the year, although at present I can’t predict exactly when. (Which reminds me: I need to buy some more ISBNs.) Aphrodite Terra, however, should appear some time next month. (The contributors were paid on acceptance, so any delay is more annoying than anything else.)
Also, next month, I’ll have a story in Litro magazine. The issue has a “future fashion” theme, and my story, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, is about astronauts and space age fashion designers. Sort of. Postscripts #32/33: Far Voyager should also be out some time this year, with my story providing its title. And later this year – no date as yet – Tickety Boo Press are publishing an anthology Space: Houston, We Have A Problem, which contains my story ‘Red Desert’.
ETA: I forgot to mention I contributed a couple of Friday Fives to Pornokitsch – one on sf novels about first missions to the Moon titled, with a great deal of imagination, ’5 Trips to the Moon’; the other about sf movies set at the bottom of the ocean, ‘5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema‘.
All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?
The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).
Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.
Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.
And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.
In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.
Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.
There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.
And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.
Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.
Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.
What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.