MIND MELD: What Are The Coolest Robots in Science Fiction?
Continuing our theme of science fiction tropes, we asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said. Are your favorites listed?
The single most memorable robot:
- Jenkins, from Cliff Simak’s City. Simak made you care for Jenkins at a time when Asimov was creating scores of robots that only Susan Calvin cared about.
- Joe, from Henry Kuttner’s “Robots Have No Tail”. Kuttner was another writer who had no interest in the Three Laws, and created a charming robot.
- Roderick, from John Sladek’s Roderick and Roderick at Random. Roderick was a perfect vehicle for Sladek’s sardonic commentary.
- Adam Link, from Eando Binder’s I, Robot (sic) and others; he’sthe missing link between clanking metallic monsters and positronic robots.
- Sisto Settimo, from Robert Silverberg’s “Good News From the Vatican”. He’s only onstage for one paragraph, but the notion of a robot pope is as memorable as they come.
And if I can suggest three totally non-Asimovian robots that made major ballots:
- Sammy, from my “Robots Don’t Cry”.
- Jackson, from my “Article of Faith”.
- Mose, from my and Lezli Robyn’s “Soulmates”.
Most of the robots that I found memorable shade into cyborgs: Data from Star Trek; Ash, Bishop and Call in the Alien tetralogy; the original T-800 Terminator and Cameron in The Sarah Connor Chronicles; Roy and Pris in Blade Runner; Yod (and his mirror twin in time, Joseph) in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. All these ask the question we constantly ask ourselves: what makes a human? I love the fact that these androids (the term should really be anthropoids) look like us but have alien motivations and behaviors, forcing us to contemplate the outcomes of a biological or technological speciation event.
Of course, the idea that Data can think without feeling emotions is arrant nonsense – you can’t have one without the other. And Roy is a bit too close to a Christ figure for my taste, though I’ve always been haunted by one of his dying phrases:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shores of Orion…I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost…like tears in rain.”
I’d say that Cameron is my favorite in this group. She shows the right mixture of otherworldliness and familiarity, young woman and killing machine.
But the robots that make tears spring to my eyes (a rare and hard feat) are Huey, Louie and Duey in Silent Running. I wrote about them in a recent blog post, The Souls in Our Machines. They’re not fluffy, they’re not cuddly, even though they gave rise to cute/sy progeny — R2-D2, Wall-E, EVE… To me, they represent the best in us: the builders, the gardeners, the explorers.
These three squarish tin cans, just like the Mars rovers, are stand-ins for the quiet, uncomplaining, unsung ones that preserve and propagate supremely “humane” values: the guild members who built the great monuments; the technicians and engineers who were the force behind the space probes and missions. We don’t know their names. They didn’t get tickertape parades. But they performed great acts of courage and creativity not counting on recognition – only wishing and hoping to leave the world better and lovelier for the rest.
- Marvin the Paranoid Android: Marvin has that certain “goth cool” quality to him. He’s always moping around, lamenting on his position in the universe. Throughout the entire Hitchhikers’ Guide series, you’re just waiting for him to belt out a series of angst poetry. Something that always bugged me about Marvin though, was that he’s described as a “paranoid android” when there’s nothing paranoid about him. He’s never fearful or suspicious, just depressed and self-entitled, but I suppose “Marvin the Self-Entitled Robot” doesn’t have as nice a ring to it.
- T-1000: The T-1000 makes my top three for sheer bad-assness. I mean, the thing is nearly indestructible and can deform into any shape. It can absorb bullets, explosions, etc and just keep coming. Hell, it’s even frozen in liquid nitrogen and shattered, only to reform into the good ol’ T-1000. It takes MOLTEN STEEL to destroy it. That’s bad-ass irony right there.
- The Mechanical Hound: The Mechanical Hound makes it for scaring the sin outta me. This beast of organic-inspired machinery makes you shiver the first time you read about it in Fahrenheit 451. It “slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live.” Bradbury describes it as being this hypersensitive powerhouse that the firemen use essentially as a toy, seeing how quickly it can catch and kill rats (with massive doses of drugs). Oh, and did I mention it has eight legs? It’d be interesting to see a cage match between The Mechanical Hound of Fahrenheit 451 and The Rat Thing of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. (I’d probably put my money on The Rat Thing. I mean, it can run 700 mph. That’s just not fair. But The Mechanical Hound/Spider is still cooler.)
- The Iron Giant, who needs no introduction. I think this is one of the finest SF movies of the past twenty years, and so what if it’s animated and a kid’s movie? Also, he’s just cool–a wonderfully developed character, rich in contradictions that make him, ironically, one of the most human creatures I’ve met in fiction.
- The Gorgonites, the Gwendies, and the Soldiers, from Small Soldiers, a deeply ridiculous and (I think) underrated movie that manages its meta very, very well. I suppose it’s not coincidence that this, too, is an anti-war movie, but how can you not like a story that casts Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci as killer computerized Barbie dolls, and Spinal Tap as peaceable stoner monsters? Not to mention the Dirty Dozen as the antagonists, and a brilliant Patton parody.
- The Bride of Gold, from the Finnish epic known as the Kalevala. A Galatea figure, she is crafted by a metalworker to be the perfect wife, and then discarded because she is too cold. I believe it’s meant (among other things) as a metaphor for what happens when one creates an unattainable lover in one’s mind. I mean to use her in something one day.
So many wonderful robots come to mind: maschinemensch from Fritz Leiber’s Metropolis, the robot on Lost in Space, the store mannekins in the “After Hours” episode of the Twilight Zone, but the coolest, of course, is the Jetson’s maid, Rosie. Along with the flying car, Rosie represents the most important of science fiction’s promises. She is the holy grail of technological efforts as far as I’m concerned. Even though I’m fond of saying we are living in the age of science fiction, until Rosie is doing my dishes, that statement is not correct. I have purchased iRobot’s Roomba model 410 which is the closest thing to Rosie I can get right now. It is a poor imitation. I never use it, in fact. For me, it’s more work to keep the thing running properly, charged, away from the wrong rooms and wrong floor types, than to just sweep up the grunge with a broom.
These modern, yet still primitive, robots fall so very far short of the mark. Until a robot can do what I tell it to using audio rather than keyboard communication, take care of itself so I don’t have to, do all my drudgework better than me, climb stairs in real time, and have great taste in floral arranging, I don’t think we can say we’re living in the age of science fiction. Maybe we never will. Maybe we’ll never have a true Jetsons existence. Maybe dogs weren’t meant to talk human. But that’s the standard I hold our technology to. I still want my flying car and I still want my Rosie.
Another favorite robot of mine is Trurl from Lem’s Cyberiad. I don’t like Klaupacius nearly as much. It’s smug and mean-spirited. Trurl is just as smart, but it’s sweeter, not nearly as ruthless as Klaupacius. They are both industrious, I’ll give them that. And they’re both greedy, which makes them terribly lovable. But somehow Trurl seems more innocent. And hapless and clumsy. How can you not love such a constructor?
My third favorite robot is Marvin the depressed paranoid in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin has some of the best lines in one of the best books of sf out there. In spite of the hilarity, there is a question that Adams raises: what are we going to do with all those overly bright, emotional AIs after we figure out how to endow them with sentience? We don’t know what to do with all the depressed paranoid humans we have now, how will we ever cope with the new uber sad? At least Marvin is 50,000 times smarter than any human. Perhaps he’ll figure it out.
Coolest robot number 1 simply has to be Robbie. Even fifty-plus years on, Robbie is the positronic patriarch, the autarch of automata. The robot from Lost In Space just wishes it was that cool. He rarely uses it himself, sir – it promotes rust.
Isaac Asimov’s robots were brilliant, but they cannot be described as cool. They spent all their time saying uncool things like ‘Would you like me to insert this drill into my brain, thereby overriding the Third with the Second Law, master’? Which brings me on to why Bender from Futurama has to be Coolest Robot Number 2, for the following reasons:
- Everyone who knows anything about science fiction knows robots would never be sexually interested in other robots, regardless of the shapeliness of their chest cowlings.
- Everyone who knows anything about science fiction knows robots would also never drink, smoke cigars, steal wallets, or lose their soul to the Robot Devil.
Bender does all these things, and is therefore cool. He doesn’t care what all you losers think. He’s a trend-setter, not a follower.
There is a disturbing trend among robots and robotoid devices, however, which is exemplified by the following list.
- Daleks – cool, but not robots.
- The Borg – cool in an I-really-dig-Robert-Smith sort of way, but again, not really robots.
- Roy Batty from *Blade Runner* – off-the-scale cool, but an android, not a robot.
- The Terminator – cooler than Bose condensate, but not a robot.
I have to say, the Rapist Robots from Flesh Gordon were both robots and, in my opinion, cool, but this probably says more about my state of mind than about the inherent coolness of a gigantic, wobbling penis drill. Does a robot, then, need not to behave like a robot to be cool? (See Bender above.) By definition, robots are emotionless, and it’s hard to pull off being cool and emotionless at the same time unless you’re either Gort or Robbie. For this reason, as my third coolest robot of all time, I have to go for the only one of Asimov’s robots who, to my knowledge, exhibits something like human emotion – a robot who is at the same time vain, coquettish, and vengeful. Does anyone remember ‘Sally’?
I mentioned Gort above, of course. I realize that Gort is a popular chap. But he hasn’t got Robbie’s mastery of the one-line comeback, he can’t synthesize whisky, he never made it into a movie sequel, he had no bit part in Gremlins, and most tellingly of all, his head just isn’t a giant glass fish tank filled with mysterious switches.
Oh, and the uncoolest robot of all time? Seven Zark Seven, from Battle of the Planets. Even One Rover One was cooler. You have to hand it to a bot who was inserted into a TV programme originally called *Science Ninja Gatchaman*, apparently solely for the purpose of making it worse.
John asked us for two or three of our favourite robots, which means that I had to really limit my focus to autonomous units — not cyborgs, not mechs, not anything that requires a “pilot” (the Greek root of the word “cybernetic”). My first M.A. incorporated cyborg theory, so if I failed to recognize this difference, well…that’d be a fail. Instead, I tried to think about what makes me love certain robots. I decided that the robots I love best are the ones who aren’t trying to be human. Why should they? What makes humans so special? Unless robots are built with a Shakespeare plugin that requires them to keep Hamlet Act II Scene ii in mind at all times, they have no automatic inclination to respect us. Not harming us, or through inaction not allowing us to come to harm, is not the same as respect or love. It’s babysitting. With that in mind, here’s my list.
The Tachikomas: The Tachikomas are a group of spider-like autonomous units from the series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. They work for the fictional anti-terrorist squad Section 9, itself composed primarily of cyborgs. The Tachikomas can be piloted, but their default setting is basically independent. However, because all their information is downloaded into a central core at the end of each working day, they have trouble remembering which robot did what with whom and when. This doesn’t stop them from having fun, though, or make any difference to their effervescent confidence. They occasionally escape from headquarters or get distracted by discarded e-brains they find in flea markets. They like presenting hapless office girl bots with the Epimenides Paradox and watching their circuits fry. They refer to other AI as “sub-Turing” when they really mean “mute.” They read “paper media” to learn more about “early forms of external memory.” They also come equipped with weapons, including a sticky goo that they can shoot like webbing in order to incapacitate an enemy, thermoptic camouflage, and claw-hands that stretch to fit a human skull just perfectly.
However, what’s really cool about the Tachikomas is their arc as characters throughout the series. Their goal is never to become “more human,” but rather to accurately assess their emerging individual consciousnesses. They begin noticing that some Tachikomas make different decisions when presented with the same situations, but have no idea why. At no point are the words “sentience” or “sapience” ever uttered. Rather, they celebrate (and subsequently attempt to hide) their development of separate personalities, simply because they see having individual identities as more fun than thinking in a hive. Of course, the humans find out and proceed to screw everything up, because let’s face it: that’s what humans do best.
- Bender: I can summarize what’s cool about Bender in five words: Bite my shiny metal ass.
Bender is an employee of Planet Express Delivery on Futurama. He’s easily the funniest character on the show, and he’s helped save the galaxy a few dozen times — usually after his latest get-rich quick scheme puts it in mortal danger. What I like best about Bender is that he’s not a metaphor for anything else, the way a lot of fictional robots are. He’s a complete character unto himself: a guy who loves beer, holds a secret dream of being a folk singer, once tried life as a cross-dressing professional wrestler, and just happens to be a robot.
- Honourable Mention:The Evangelions The Evas are the only cyborgs that I thought desperately cool enough to consider blurring my autonomy vs. piloting line for. The Evas, from the series Neon Genesis: Evangelion, are skyscraper-sized humaniform robots built to defeat the “Angels” — monstrous beings with no consistent morphology or predictable method of attack. A group of teenagers, each with severe emotional damage, pilots them. The Evangelions are Herculean feats of design and engineering. Behind the force fields and beneath the 18 layers of steel armor, there is a hungry, fleshy body that bleeds and screams just like we do. They can jump. They can run. Hell, they can even dance. And occasionally, they can attain moments of sentience, go berserk, and murder everything in their path. They’re great. I want one.
Coolest robots? Oh, man. I could talk about this for days. Although the entirely amiable R2D2 and C3P0 were my first introduction to the world of robotic companionship, my very favorite robots were the ones that were a little bit frightening. I was especially afraid of The Black Hole‘s Maximilian, and although later they were revealed to be cybernetic, I always loved Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons for the same reason. As a child, I remember checking out a book from my local public library on the then-burgeoning science of robotics, and promptly attempting to create my own out of discarded springs and Play-Do. Mad? Mad, you say? Well, uh, okay. You’ve probably got a point.
My first choice will, of course, be the same first robot that everyone else chose: Superking, also known as Bender Bending Rodriguez of Futurama fame. Bender is not the coolest robot in all of creation because of what he can do (although he does have that torso hatch going on) but because of who he is. He’s that beer-swilling, cigar smoking, kleptobot everyone wants to party with, the robot your mother told you cross the street to avoid. Fonzie wishes he could be this guy. Bender has traveled time and space, returned from Robot Hell, become a god a couple of times, is a founding member of the New Justice Team and has even toured with Beck. Your positronic Robbies can suck it after that.
Second up would be Hans Moravec’s bush robot mentioned in his 1988 non-fiction book, Mind Children. You say, “Hey, dink, we’re talking fiction, not non-fiction.” Ho-ho! And so I have ensorcelled you, for bush robots have appeared in many a science fiction novel by the likes of Simmons, Forward, MacLeod and Stross. Bush bots have many limbs, each of which branch into many fingers and each of those fingers branch into more fingers and so on until we’re looking at trillions of fingers on a sub-atomic scale. Bush bots can juggle electrons and build atoms from the ground up. They perform feats that would seem to their fat human ancestors to bend the laws of physics to their wills.
The apex of its coolness is that you (yes, you) can become a bush robot yourself. First, get a bush robot. Next, allow it take your brain apart atom by atom until it has cataloged and recreated your brain within itself. You’re now inside it and, if things break your way, in control. Two simple steps, kids, and you too could be not quite as cool as B. B. Rodriguez.
Third through, like, ten-thousandth because there are so many of them, are the Sentinels from the X-Men comics. They’re huge, they’re relentless, they’re multi-powered and they’re not afraid to wear purple in public. Massive demolition is their calling card, not only the rubble, shattered glass and fire they themselves make from everyday household items, but their own blasted body parts which occur when the X-Men tear into them. You can cut, blast, crush, electrocute and generally go apeshit on them while enjoying the ensuing destruction without any ethical quandaries to keep you up at night. You just can’t do that with Paste-Pot Pete.
When, in the “Days of Future Past” storyline, a Sentinel blasts Wolverine’s skeleton clean of that annoying flesh that had been growing all over it, those big bots won a place in my heart compartment which I mark “Awesome.”
There’s my three. Sorry, Twiki. You came so damn close.
When thinking of the “coolest” robots, one might automatically go the anthropomorphic route with Star Trek‘s android Data or one of the skinjob Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica or even one of the Terminators from The Terminator franchise. While I consider all of these robots to be seriously cool, I have to say that my first robot love, R2-D2, is the coolest of them all.
R2-D2, the astromech droid of Star Wars fame, is practically The Fonz of the robot world but with the mouth like a sailor. If he had thumbs, I can imagine him holding them up, beeping and whistling the equivalent of “Ayyy.” Not only is the adorable Artoo fiercely loyal, he’s also the go-to droid when you’re in a pinch. In the Star Wars universe, the humans take all the credit (and the medals), but where would the Rebel Alliance be without the feisty R2 unit? [Dead, is what I say.] Whether you’re about to be squashed to death in a garbage compactor or you need your spaceship’s hyperdrive fixed to outrun Imperial cruisers, R2-D2 and his plethora of handy gadgets will come to the rescue.
Even if you don’t go by his feats and skills in the prequel movies (which showed that he was able to ‘fly’ at one point), R2’s accomplishments are still impressive… most impressive. Think about it, he was able to outsmart a Force-strong would-be Jedi into removing his restraining bolt so he could escape!
While some robots only get their allotted 15 minutes of fame, the little blue and white droid has maintained his popularity through six feature films spanning over three decades and has never gone out of fashion. Even during those dormant Star Wars movie years in the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, R2-D2 could still be found on children’s bed sheets and on shelves in toy stores.
R2-D2 has gone beyond the simple action figure into the life-size figure realm. He’s even available as a trashcan. Better yet, how many robots can boast about how their likeness was used on U.S. mailboxes (that’s right, R2 went postal!)?
As if this already hefty list of reasons wasn’t enough to prove that R2-D2 is the coolest robot ever, his crossover into the Star Trek universe definitely puts him over the top against the competition thanks to his cameo in last year’s Star Trek film (my favorite movie of 2009). Now that’s cool.
Though R2-D2’s bi-pedaled counterpart C-3PO called him an “overweight glob of grease,” I wouldn’t change a thing about him. R2-D2 is definitely the coolest bleeping robot ever.
The coolest robots in SF? That’s a tall order. The field is vast, including everything from the ambulatory logical puzzle machines of Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories, to the Cylons of BSG. Gort to Wall-E. It’s almost an impossible task to narrow it down…But, if we agree that we’re talking about “coolness”, I think it becomes a little easier. If we define cool in the sense that ninjas, Harleys and dinosaurs are cool, and in the way that a ninja dinosaur riding a Harley is way cooler, well I think we can narrow things down a bit (I mean, Wall-E is cute, and cute <> cool).
So my three coolest robots:
- Bender from Futurama. Bender is anti-social, lecherous, dishonest, and hard-drinking. His only visible means of support is grand larceny. His evil twin is the good guy. If Han Solo was a robot, he’d be Bender, and he’d kick C3P0’s metrosexual ass.
- The Terminator, from the movie, natch. The Terminator defines cool for cinematic ass-kicking robotdom. The opening scene has him walking up to a set of Doomed Punks™ bare ass naked, and rips a guy’s stomach out for the poor schlub’s clothes. He dresses in a motorcycle jacket, carries an arsenal, wears a badass pair of shades- after doing home surgery on his own eyeball- and, after delivering one of the most quoted one-liners in cinema history, drives a truck into a police station before ventilating everyone in the place. And he’s a time-traveling robot from the future! That will always give bonus cool points.
And speaking of time-traveling robots from the future, there’s one robot cooler than the Terminator by at least five levels of Chuck Norris badassery (and please note that’s a logarithmic scale):
- The Shrike from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and sequels. If Edward Scissorhands (another good robot, but emo, and emo<>cool) was a prophet, the Shrike would be his God. Here we have an near-omnipotent, near-invulnerable, time-traveling walking knife drawer that- if it doesn’t turn you into sushi while dodging every weapon that you throw at it- takes you home so it can impale you alive in its front yard where you get to writhe in agony forever while it looks on like the silent mega-badass it is.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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