I’ve been a blur of preparations this week for the city of Roanoke, VA’s Generic Magic Festival (copyright protections prevent them from hosting a “Harry Potter” festival, so instead we’ll celebrate the spirit of those books in a generic way), to which I have been invited to give a talk about robots. Yes, I said robots. I am a liturgist and Church musician, and I’m traveling 6+ hours this weekend, missing both Masses I play for, to talk about robots. (Actually, it’s also about the house-elves from Harry Potter, and how they act a lot more like robots than elves.)
Am I crazy? Well… maybe, but not about this.
The interesting thing about robots in classic science fiction (and house-elves in Harry Potter, I argue) is that although they lack humanity, they almost always create a platform within the narratives in which they appear for a consideration of human rights. The term “robot” (or roboti) first appears in a 1920 play, R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (image from libcom.org), by Czech writer Karel Čapek, a story about a company on a remote island which manufactures and sells synthetic humans for service, soldiery, etc. – you know, basically for slavery. And these first robots were not metal men, but were male and female, and indistinguishable from humans, except for their lack of feelings, creativity and pain receptors. Sounds ideal, right? Not after these robots become conscious of their enslavement and rebel against the humans. (That doesn’t spoil everything about the play – listen to this free Librivox production of R.U.R. on your next road trip and hear for yourself.)
Both the origin of the word “robot” and the creatures’ origins in (synthetic) flesh-and-blood point to the real significance of what would become one of the most compelling and beloved tropes of science fiction: the created servant, or robot. Roboti, a Slavonic word, referred in real life to the forced servitude that fueled the Central European system of serfdom for ages. And more than just a cost-saving measure for the production of R.U.R., the human-replica nature of the robots in that play allowed audiences to identify and empathize with them more readily – to see the robots’ enslavement as inhumane, ironically enough.
It is also interesting that robots emerge at a time in history when the Industrial Revolution has left a long, wide trail of social ills related to the new seemingly-limitless expectation for humans to work, especially low-wage workers, especially under grueling and dangerous working conditions. In the generation that precedes the premiere of R.U.R. and its robots, Pope Leo XIII writes his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). It is the Church’s first formal articulation of its social teachings, a pillar of which is the dignity of the worker and of work. Work is never shameful, says Pope Leo, it is to be honored and encouraged, but also to be given reasonable limits. At the core of the letter is an assumption of the human person as made in the image of God, and known and cared for intimately and individually by God. In this understanding of the human person, work is never shameful because it is an expression of our being made by the God who labored to create all that is, but “to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman.” (Rerum Novarum, para. 20) R.U.R. seems to echo this understanding, challenging audiences to expand their notion of who deserves to be treated with humanity, even to the lower classes who had for so long been oppressed by the forced labor of the European serfdom system, and now had moved into unregulated factories to face an even more profound oppression and enslavement.
So while robots may have a campy, nerdy appeal (you can buy lots of items with robots on, like vintage robot wallpaper from LoveAbode (featured in the image above), and I myself have picked up more than one robot t-shirt recently), their significance doesn’t stop there. Robots in science fiction help us ask and answer big questions about emotion and consciousness, the dignity (or indignity) of labor, freedom, slavery and ultimately, what it means to be human.