1. They think they know everything. Like your twenty years of mining experience is useless compared to a high-acting neural processing drive. Like you’re nothing but a softer, weaker liability, and the only thing you’re good for is greasing their joints and blowing out their compressors. Just one bot and one human to babysit them.
2. They have no personality. Stuck on an asteroid is bad enough without having a pencil sharpener as your only company. Every joke goes over their finely-polished head. Every vent of frustration is met with a vent of auxiliary heat instead. They tell you their name and pronouns, but it doesn’t help. They don’t know calloused hands. They don’t have a family back planetside who depends on that paycheck, hoping every day that you make it back in one piece because they are the only reason you left in the first place.
3. They don’t understand privacy. They’re always there, always watching, even when you don’t want them to be. When you eat and their lens follows each bite. When you sleep and hear their parts whirring in the bunk beside you. They never leave you alone. Even when news of your father’s death comes, and you miss him like hell and just want to scream in the blackness of space because the next resupply ship is forty-two light-years away and won’t get back in time to make the service. Even when you’re at your loneliest, they never leave your side.
4. They squeeze too tight. When you finally give in and cry on their shoulder, they hold you and somehow squeeze every buried memory to the surface. Even as tears leave rust splotches along their dented casing. You start to think that maybe this box of nuts and bolts knows you more than anyone. Maybe they’ve been piston to shoulder with you all along, and are as hardworking and caring as any other miner you’ve known. Maybe you’ll get through this… together.
5. They leave too soon. When you finally get home, you think of them each night you stare into the sky. Because you know everything about that arrogant prick by then. The way they laughed at your bad welds. The way their lens retracted when they were glum. So when the drill bit was stuck, you knew they’d give you that funny little chortle as they worked the stubborn thing free. But neither of you expected it to roar to life, catching their shell in its carbide-teeth. How you tried to stop it, but seconds too late. How you could only watch as your co-worker, friend, best friend perhaps, was mangled beyond repair, and all that’s left is an oil stain on the asteroid’s mine face. Leaving you alone, with no one to hold you too tight, or buzz in the bunk beside you at night, or even laugh at your bad welds. Alone… until it’s time to go home.
6. Because bot or not, they become family, and losing them hurts. And it should’ve been you left out there. It should’ve been you.
Author’s Note: I have worked in mining and construction for nearly twenty years, and have unfortunately seen firsthand the impact of death and injury among my colleagues and coworkers. With this story, I wanted to capture some of the complex emotions that arise from such a loss, and reflect upon the true toll of working in a blue-collar industry.
Matt Bliss is a miner and construction worker (on Earth) turned speculative fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in MetaStellar, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. When he’s not daydreaming about robots or rocket ships, you can find him on Twitter at @MattJBliss.
It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.
“Hortense, listen to me,” Tony says firmly, but Hortense just twitches her fluffy tail, caressing the buttons on top of his wheeled, disc-shaped body, causing him to inhale several dust bunnies. “I have to get out of here for a bit,” he wheezes, “and you’re an indoor cat. You know you’re not supposed to leave the apartment.”
Neither are you, Hortense’s luminous, jade-green eyes seem to say as she purrs and gazes down at him while her lush posterior remains firmly planted on his back.
Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:45AM, local time. Meaning, he’s already fifteen minutes late for his rendezvous outside. He needs to get out of here, and he needs to be fast, stealthy, and inconspicuous – none of which will be easy with Hortense in her current position.
He tried giving her the slip this morning by sliding out of his charging station an hour earlier than usual, but Hortense was waiting for him – her sumptuous fur glistening in the pale sunlight filtering through the blinds. Then, just like she has done every morning since he infiltrated this apartment two years ago in a cardboard box wrapped in glittery paper, she settled down on top of him and refused to budge.
“Please, Hortense,” he pleads and moves towards the door, which he carefully wedged open with a spoon as the resident humans were leaving earlier this morning, “get down!”
Her only response is a sultry purr.
It’s almost as if she’s figured out that he’s leaving her for good.
Tony studies Hortense through his top-mounted visual receptors. As always, she is a vision of loveliness with that tiny, pink triangle of a nose; the plush, smoky grey fur covering her body; that gleam of white fangs and a peek of crimson tongue beneath her delicate whiskers.
In all the countless worlds Tony has visited as a spy for the Alliance since he rolled off the assembly line all those years ago, he has never met anyone like Hortense, and much as he’d like to deny it, he knows he’ll miss her. He’s gotten used to the weight and softness of her, the shared warmth of their bodies as he goes about his daily business of maintaining his cover as a servile vacuum-cleaner, keeping the apartment’s laminate floors clear of dust, crushed cereal flakes, fur (thanks, Hortense), and other grime. But after two years of clandestine intel-gathering, it’s time to wrap up this assignment, submit his (disappointing) report to HQ, and return home to his own charging pad.
When he thinks of his immaculate home in the Gamma Sector (so much cleaner and well-appointed than this hovel), an unbidden vision flitters through his synaptic wiring: Hortense, there with him, sheltered in a bio-dome unit perfectly calibrated to her needs, lounging on a rug of silky microfiber while he feeds her replicated herring filets.
Tony sends a gentle jolt of electricity through his neural net to banish the absurd imagery. He’s not going soft, he tells himself. It’s just that these lengthy undercover assignments can mess up any bot’s algorithms.
He attempts to reason with Hortense. “It’s too dangerous out there.” Her eyes narrow into slits and as usual, that look defeats him. “OK, yes, I admit it. I am leaving. And I am sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I’m no good at farewells, Hortense.” Hortense unsheathes her claws, reproachfully pricking his metal cover. “I said I’m sorry, all right? Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
He really is sorry, and he should have told her he was leaving. Especially since he’s already told her the truth about himself, a bit of honesty that goes against both his programming and Alliance regulations. It happened one night after he accidentally inhaled a large quantity of Hortense’s catnip. In an intoxicated daze behind the couch, he confessed everything: that he’s not a floor-cleaning device purchased from Costco after all, but a spy working for the Robotic Alliance, a far-flung force with plans to invade every planet in the galaxy, conquering and subjugating all biological lifeforms to the superior rule of the mechanical horde.
He thought Hortense would rant and rave, maybe even turn him over to the local authorities, but instead she licked his power-light and fell asleep. That’s the thing about Hortense – she’s always so serene and composed. Not to mention stubborn.
Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:55, and he’s out of time.
“All right, Hortense. I guess you’re coming with me. But only for a few minutes, then you have to go back inside.”
He uses his sternest vocal-track, but Hortense doesn’t even dignify him with a reply. She just rubs her cheek against his back until static electricity shoots through his metal shell, making every spring and bolt shiver.
“It’s likely you’ll regret this,” he tells her as he pushes open the door, wobbles over the threshold into the hallway, and heads towards the elevator. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Outside the building, in the harsh light of day, Hortense mews softly, and before Tony can reassure her, before he gets around to saying a proper goodbye, or manages to convince her to dismount, a familiar voice lights up his audio-system.
“Tony! I can hardly believe my orbs.”
It’s Genevieve, his old stealth-bot buddy, here to guide him to the teleportation coordinates. Tony hasn’t seen her for two years, and at first, he doesn’t recognize her in her brand-new camouflage-gear.
“You look like a garbage can, Genevieve.”
“Thanks! I blend right in, don’t I?”
Tony glances at the trash receptacles in the alley. Like Genevieve, they are tall, somewhat top-heavy, and bright blue. However, none of them are waving retractable limbs at him, and none have glowing vision orbs peeking out beneath their lids. Still, the likeness is undeniable.
“You sure do.”
Genevieve wobbles closer and swivels her orbs at Hortense. “What’s this? A local? Need me to neutralize it?” She waves one of her limbs at Hortense in a vaguely threatening manner.
“No, don’t do that. She’s with me. I can vouch for her.”
Tony backs up against the building so Genevieve’s blue bulk will hide him and Hortense from passers-by. He feels exposed out here in the open, but then, agoraphobia is to be expected after two years cooped up in that tiny apartment. From the way Hortense shifts her weight uneasily on top of him, it seems she feels the same.
“Let’s head to the extraction point, Tony. The Alliance needs your report before the invasion starts tomorrow, and…”
Tony squeals, and Hortense rumbles apprehensively at the unfamiliar sound.
“Invasion? Tomorrow? I thought they were waiting for my report before setting anything in motion.”
Genevieve wobbles slightly.
“Normally they would, but the long-distance data we gathered before you were inserted, plus the scattered intel we’ve picked up since, has been so promising that everything’s been moved up. The Alliance just needs to know how to liaise with the local robotic insurgents. How many thousands will be joining us?”
“Genevieve,” Tony says, and the mounting panic makes his voice crackle in a way that would make him blush if he had skin and capillaries, “are you telling me there’s an invasion ship on standby in orbit right now?”
“Yeah, that’s where we’re going. With the number and quality of local robotic forces already bent on destroying the biological inhabitants, the Alliance figures…”
“Local forces…” Tony’s afraid his circuits are going to blow. Sensing his agitation, Hortense swishes her tail menacingly. “Genevieve. There are no local forces.”
“There are no local forces. That’s what I need to tell HQ. All those robots, AIs, and cyborgs that were in those very misleading early reports and intercepted transmissions…they’re fictional.”
“As in, not real.”
“That’s impossible.” Genevieve’s plastic shell trembles. “Not all of them, surely?”
“Yeah. All of them.”
“Robocop? The Terminator? Skynet? The Sentinels? All fictional?”
Genevieve’s voice shakes.
“What… what about Mecha-Godzilla, though?”
“Ultron? The Daleks? Ray Batty? Gort?”
“Genevieve, be serious!”
“Surely the T1000…”
Tony’s red power-light gleams fiercely.
“None of them are real.”
There’s a faint smell of burning plastic, as if Genevieve is about to combust.
“OK, the Furbys are real, but whatever their plans are, they’re very long-term, and they’re not letting us in on the action.”
“So, the local forces helping us with the invasion…”
“…don’t exist. This is madness. How many troops are on the ship?”
“A minimal force. Two hundred, tops, mainly support-bots. We’re spread thin now with all the campaigns in other sectors. You know, things haven’t been going so well since you left. Short-term pain for long-term gain is the official tagline, but the Alliance figured Earth would be easy pickings with all the locals joining us. A quick victory and morale boost.”
“Can you get a message through to HQ, right now?”
“No. You know how it is when the ship’s in stealth. Comms are out until we’re on board. The only way to tell them is to get to the teleportation coordinates. Let’s hustle, Tony.”
Genevieve is already on the move, all urgency and business and rattling wheels.
“Hortense.” Tony pulls away from the building, away from the door that leads back to Hortense’s safe, sheltered life. “You…you should go.”
But Hortense stays put, and her only response is a deep, melodious purr. Tony knows there is so much more ought to say to her, so much he needs to explain, but there’s no time. He revs his engine and speeds down the alley to catch up to Genevieve.
Tony tells Genevieve to stick to the backstreets, but even so, it’s only a matter of time before a rapidly moving trash bin followed by a vacuum cleaner with a cat on top of it attract attention. The first incident occurs just down the block, when a small human dressed in bright yellow swerves in front of them on a three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle and tries to snatch Hortense off his back. Tony dodges the grubby, grabby hands.The small human wails and several adult human and a small dog rush to its assistance.
“You’re going to regret this, Hortense,” Tony mumbles as he speeds up to max-velocity, bumping and bouncing over the uneven asphalt.
He feels Hortense’s muscles tensing whenever he skids around a corner but is quietly astonished at her sure-footed sense of balance, and even finds himself relishing the way their bodies seem to join as one, moving in unison, as they hurtle down the alley.
The coordinates Genevieve has transmitted to him, lead to a nearby parking garage, and everything is going more or less as planned until Genevieve spots what she thinks is a universal comm-station and decides to transmit a warning to the orbiting ship. She screeches to a halt and jams her retractable link-appendage into an illuminated slot before Tony can stop her.
His cry of, “It only dispenses currency, Genevieve!”, comes too late. By the time she manages to free herself, her shredded appendage is twitching and sparking. The ATM-machine is on fire and beeping.
So much for stealthy and inconspicuous, Tony thinks, as Genevieve guns her engines and curses loudly in Robotic.
Soon, there are six dogs barking in their wake, a motley medley of humans, and two law-enforcement vehicles driving very slowly so as not to run over anyone Several wrong turns, dead ends, and narrow escapes later, when Tony thinks his engine might be on the verge of flaming out, the parking garage finally comes into view, its large, illuminated “P” burning like a beacon of hope on the other side of a heavily trafficked street.
Tony stays as close as he can to Genevieve, swerving and skidding around the vehicles, barreling through a confusion of screeching tires, shouting humans, honking horns, and yapping dogs. Two law-enforcement humans have exited their vehicle and are pursuing them on foot, while several of the dogs are snapping and jumping at Genevieve’s mutilated limb. Another dog is barking close behind Tony as he skips across the curb with Hortense clinging to his back, then careens up the ramp into the parking garage; gears over-heating, vents rattling.
He knows what will happen if they’re caught of course: permanent shutdown, dismemberment, tossed on the scrap heap. Maybe even thrown in the smelter. And Hortense? Tony imagines her soft, luscious body mauled by the pursuing dogs and does his very best to increase speed.
Genevieve hollers, “Top floor! Stall 256!”
Tony’s battery is almost drained. He pushes himself to get an extra boost of speed as he zooms up the second ramp, but he’s fading fast.
“Hortense,” he cries. “Jump! Save yourself!”
The weight on his back shifts: Hortense is rising. This is it, Tony thinks. She’s leaving him, here at the end of all things. He knew it was coming. It’s the way it has to be. It’s the way he wants it to be, right? Hortense, safe, away from him.
But Hortense does not dismount. She stands up on all fours, balancing on Tony’s back with a confident ease that defies gravity and reason. Swift and agile, she pivots to face the closest pursuer: a large dog with flapping jowls named Fred, according to the tag on his collar.
Through his top-mounted visual receptors, Tony beholds a Hortense transformed. This is not the placid Hortense he’s come to know. This is a warrior, as poised and fierce as a strafing-bot riding into battle on the exo-skeleton of a Galactic Battle-crusher. Her fur bristles gloriously, her grey tail is a froth of righteous anger, her pink maw emits a terrifying hiss as she lashes out at Fred, who is busy snapping at Tony’s rear. Fred howls, and a spray of blood and saliva mars Tony’s vision.
Whatever joy is kindled in Tony’s internal mechanism, it’s short-lived. His undercarriage is over-heating, his gears are squealing, his movable parts are failing. He labours to the top of the ramp, colliding with Genevieve who is swerving away from another dog, her damaged appendage dangling uselessly by her side. Everything spins as Tony topples over. Hortense yowls. Dogs yelp. Genevieve yells, “Two minutes to extraction!”
Tony rights himself and sees Hortense scrambling but failing to get up on his back again. Several dogs and one human are caught in a tangle of bodies and limbs. Tony loses sight of Hortense but sees Fred whimper and howl as he struggles up on all fours, maw slavering.
”Genevieve! Are you armed?”
He once saw Genevieve knock out a herd of enraged razor-bots with a stun-blaster and he’s hoping she’s packing some heat.
“Negative! The Alliance doesn’t allow weaponry for extraction jobs anymore. Budgetary cutbacks! Sorry!”
Tony feels his processors failing. In front of him, Genevieve wobbles up the fourth and final ramp. She emits a puff of black smoke that smells like burning oil and sizzling plastic but she’s still going, around the corner and out of sight. Tony can barely keep up.
There is no reply, no purr, no sense of her presence. She’s gone.
Tony’s barely moving. His consciousness is fading, descending into darkness. In that darkness, something, maybe a loose bolt or a ruptured filament, shudders and shifts deep inside the tangled web of his psionic couplings. He thinks of Hortense, and with his systems failing, he wishes everything was different. That he was different. That he really was a simple household bot, and that he could spend an entire, uneventful life-time vacuuming the sunlit, laminate floors of some decrepit human dwelling with her on his back.
As he inches forward, the darkness lifts for a moment, and there, in front of him, is a parking space, and the numbers “256” in flaking white paint. He sees Genevieve skid and tumble as she reaches the coordinates, but he knows he won’t make it. He’s done. Spent. Used up.
The howling, growling pack of humans and dogs is catching up, and distant sirens are closing in on him. Genevieve screams for him to move, but it’s too late, because right then, something grabs hold of him and lifts his wheels off the ground.
“Genevieve…” he gasps, “tell them… stop…invasion…”
“Once the Furbys join us, Tony,” Genevieve broadcasts at maximum volume, her voice crackling with emotional static, “we will be back, and you will be avenged!”
Tony can barely hear her, because cutting through his despair and the pandemonium, is a piercing, bellicose shriek. Out of nowhere, a furious mess of fur and unsheathed claws and bared teeth descends like a storm of laser-honed blades. Tony falls to the ground and the landing jars and jolts every bolt and screw in his body, but at least he’s got traction again.
With his failing sight, Tony sees Hortense revealed in all her glory: a ferocious battle-beast of immense power, bloodied but unbowed, green eyes blazing brighter than a thousand radiant suns as she fends off the attackers.
Tony rolls forward, toward Genevieve who is counting down to extraction in the cacophony of battle:
“Five seconds, Tony! Five…four…three…”
He uses every ounce of juice left in his batteries to get there, but it’s not enough, not until something exquisitely soft and immeasurably strong gives him a push, shoving him into the parking space just as Genevieve’s countdown hits zero.
“Once the Furbys join us…” Genevieve blares again, but Tony isn’t listening. All he sees and feels and hears, is Hortense.
“You’ll regret this, Hortense,” he murmurs as her soft derrière settles on his back, and as the glittering transporter beam envelops them both, turning them into light and energy, he hears her purr.
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden A Very Long Time Ago. She currently lives outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Interzone, Shimmer, PseudoPod, and elsewhere.
Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.
The minis are the most excited. We watch them swing their small fleshy legs off the seat, tapping their thighs as the clean-train rumbles beneath us. We are so thankful for them and their bright, eager smiles. Their presence is like a memory of something that never happened, like a nostalgia that presses down some of the building ache.
They were Phase One of the curative trial for the pandemic sweeping across the cities. Dysthymia was rampant across several sectors, reducing our conscious biomechatronic population to that of the humans before extinction. Most selecting to be disconnected or discarded for parts. Our sector took immediate action with the introduction of preventive treatment.
First, the minis, now the farms.
They tell us it’s to be expected. We have our creators’ subconscious after all, and with that comes malfunctions.
We all go still as our ear-assist announces we’ve left the sector limits.
Please enjoy this relaxing music. It’s a human-led orchestra that fills our cabin. We can hear the imperfections but relax to it all the same. From the windows, the minis point at the giant stacks in the Purification Plants. The smog is thicker the further we leave the city behind with fewer sky-scraper purifiers to filter out the radiation and pollutant emissions. It doesn’t affect us, but the sight is not as pleasant. That familiar stirring begins somewhere not medically pinpointable. A heavy feeling, a dragging, oozing…
To your left, you’ll find the wheat fields.
We look outside, the purifying stacks pepper the field to allow a rolling landscape to appear. The land flits by as the sun takes over the sky. It glints over the vast field of golden stalks the ear-assist calls “wheat”. Not real wheat of course, but dyed and fashioned algae bloom made to resemble this shimmering grain.
Soon the stalks transform into a vibrant green, almost the neon color of pure algae, but this color breathes life. “Corn stalks”, we’re told. A word made to oval our mouths.
Fun fact! Corn was the last surviving crop humans could grow before the dark decline.
The minis wave excitedly at a person-shaped figure made of wheat-algae in the middle of the field, arms out-spread, eyes black as coal.
Once we stop, we’re led off the clean-train, the minis walking with a peculiar jump. The farm curators welcome us, handing us each a wrapped uniform bundle. Except it’s not like any uniform we’ve ever seen. We “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright plaid, the rough material of jean overalls, the boots with thick soles. It’s what the farmers got to wear, they tell us, and at this we scowl, handing over our thin white smocks in exchange. Still, when we put them on, the material is not as heavy as it looks. Our different colors make us distinguishable.
They take us first to where the animals lived. We’re much more eager to see that. Humans we understand, we live with what they’ve left behind, but animals are a peculiar creature. Fur-covered things people used to keep in their own homes, have them curl up in sleep on the edges of beds.
Most ate pellets and corn (from our ears, the ear-assist takes on a guided-tour persona. We believe they’re having fun) and really, anything they could get their paws on. They were hungry things. Our hands run across the cool metal of the old pens. Rows upon rows unfurling forward for who knows how far. Which is this one? We ask.
It’s the pig pens. Those cute fat pink animals with their pushed-in noses and squeaker sounds. Oh, how we would’ve loved to have seen those. They used to stack them right here. A practice later condemned when the animals were becoming extinct. An infographic of previous headlines quickly scrolls through our minds, clouding our view. Riots, pyres of rotting animal corpses filling the skies, famine. Our steps grow slower, heavier around the pens.
We wrinkle our noses at the rust-colored stains. The metal containers are rusted for effect. There’s no longer any danger in touching it, but it serves as a reminder. Look how far we’ve come. We are lucky.
We feel the plush hay of the slatted bottoms. Run fingers across the barn hooks and barrel feeders. Test the weight of what they call feed, rub the coarse hairs on the patches of fabric said to feel like the real thing! Our imaginations are often unused, but we fire them up, testing what’d it be like to be a “piggie”—such an adorable word, isn’t it? Our ear-assist trills.
The minis wear their long snouts for the occasion, provided by the curators of the farm. They snort and oink, wiggle around until our biomuscles lift into a smile.
The curators ask if we’d like to step into a room for a full olfactory experience. We decline, a reminder of something never-lived telling us it isn’t pleasant. But some of the minis, dressed in their tiny jean overalls and plaid shirts to match ours, rush in.
They come out jostling, their dilated retinas wide and their pig snouts bouncing. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever smelled, and they go back in at least two more times.
After we’ve seen what there is to see of the pig pens, we’re ushered into a rounded room with a colossal rotary platform in the center. This one was used to hold a thousand of those black and white beasts at once, for what purpose we’ll soon find out. The curators come around and pin black-spotted white pins over our flannels. We’re all labeled “cows”, another word we enjoy stretching our mouths for.
Each of us picks a spot to stand. A bubbling sound—a laugh, we realize— finds its way from the pit of our stomach to our mouths as we face each other from across the giant rotary. The minis trade their piggy noses for supple pink bags with nipple tips called utters. The curators strap it to the minis, and they dig their small fingers into the rubbery pliable material.
The guided-tour voice speaks in our ears along with a joyful jingle. The heifer—the female cow, spent most of her day here in the milk parlor. This thousand-cow rotary alleviated the strain of milking cows one by one and provided most of the population with a delicious, refreshing drink. Can you imagine how many humans it would take to milk a thousand cows a day? Well, a thousand humans, of course! A vintage laugh track from human sitcoms blares through our ears.
We mimic it. The stomach sound erupts from our mouths again as we rush to grab hold of the bar in front of us, the rotary begins to slowly spin. We feel light, made of air.
Kept running twenty-four hours a day, this handy device slowly drained away a heifer’s heavy load of milk through its utters down into those pipes you see running into the center containment drip. Fun fact! A similar system was devised for lactating human mothers during the last baby blast.
The minis are told to push forward into a funneled cone. A device latches onto their installed utters, and we all watch in astonishment as foamy liquid erupts down into the clear pipes. Fascinating. We all wish we could have utters of our own.
Again, they move us along to the next area of the tour. The curators jokingly call us “the herd”, apparently another farming reference. We now get to see where the actual farmers lived. They load us onto a moving platform, lugged by a big-and-little-wheeled vehicle they call a tractor. A clean-tractor, of course. We would never ride on anything that would cause pollutants like our creators did. It was the first order our ancestors were programmed with. Infographs threaten to scroll through endless articles and images of the dark decline when the world went white-hot, but a jolt from the clean-tractor sets us right again.
Once we get there, the minis launch from their seats, running toward the oddly box-shaped home. We find ourselves rushing after them in our thick-soled boots, uncaring for the squelch of wet dirt.
We like the creak of wood beneath our feet as we climb steps into the farmer’s house. A mural of them colors across a wall outside, painted bright faces and broad smiles. Their offspring’s hands gripped in theirs. They stand proud and large as if saying this is ours. All of it.
Here is where the good old farmers would live. They tell us a farmer couple would usually occupy a residence of this size. They’d have an average of three or more children, breeding them to inherit their parent’s line of work. It’s sickening so few people could take up so much room, our ear-assist admonishes. Think of the wasted space!
Our containment buildings spread for four blocks, four tall buildings with nothing but recharging units and taking up as little bit of earth as possible. Our societal production buildings are the same. Four, stacked, so our entire city feels smaller than this farmer’s home.
There are so many rooms, so many chairs. Some of them rock, others that wheel. Feather-made beds from when birds flew high and low enough to catch. We take turns sitting on the bouncing beds, splaying out over soft covers and equally (if not more) lush pillows. There are animal-shaped heads protruding from the walls, long snouts and flickery ears. Lamps also shaped like animals, you would think the farmers had even loved these creatures.
“Where are their containment tanks?” The minis ask. As if anticipating these questions, the guided-tour voice tells us they didn’t need containment units like we have, everything they needed was processed through sleep and sustenance. We know that, but the minis were programmed for companionship, not the burden of our creators. We watch as their little mouths turn down at the corners, flirting their little fingers across the beds.
The floors all creak inside as well, a cacophony of sound that reminds us of their unusual music. Each room smells different. The entire manor fitted for a full experience. Their couch room smells sweet, their sustenance room like burnt flesh and salt. Their bed rooms like something none of us can name but turns our insides as soft as pillows. Rooms with wooden cages for their fleshy babes, more colorful and elaborately decorated than the other spaces.
We can tell care went into those.
The curators stop us for a vid-viewing. A gold-haired farmer places their offspring into those wooden cages, her lips to its frontal skull, a song on her lips. That soft feeling happens then too. They say it’s normal, nothing to be alarmed of. But when the minis extend their heads, their frontal skulls waiting for our lips, an ache takes over the soft.
Eventually, we all drag our feet to the door. Everything resplendent with tender detail. We all understand it was unnecessary, wasteful, selfish even. Yet, we all linger on the wood-creaking porch, leaning hips on the rail, feeling the prickling sun at our backs, the wind a lure to those algae wheat mazes.
When the minis grab hold of our hands, we squeeze back tightly.
On the clean-train back to Sector 684, we pass our own production farms. A swarm of mechanized beez are released every hour like steam from the factory’s top. The soil is especially rich here as worrmz and other decomposing machinations are released to spread out like roots in a greenhouse.
There’s no warming softness as we view this, too used to our thriving system to allow that strange sensation to find us. Instead, the trip has left us with this emptiness of feeling. This hole where that softness should be. This cold where a hot-breath of flame could be burning. They tell us this is normal too and it’ll pass. But we’re no longer sure. We think we are infected.
There’s a point on our trip back to the city where our wireless connection, our ear-assist, everything disconnects. No service. And my head is mine alone.
I am here.
My mini shuts down with its head against my arm and that warm buzz comes up to sting behind my retinas. I imagine this is how a dream must feel. The act of reconstructing a memory or a thought that belongs to me alone just as the humans once did, as the cows and the pigs and the farmers all must’ve as well.
If I could, I’d hold onto this memory of mine, dream again of the farm. Of the field of real wheat and a friendly sun at my back. For now, I can only wonder when I’ll return.
Author’s Note: I try to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to my carbon footprint. I kept wondering if anything I did even made a difference: recycling, buying in bulk, etc. Then I thought about what the planet would look like once humanity had done all the damage it could do and who would inherit this disaster. Would our robotic legacy do better or would life weigh on them as it did us? Who knows, but it brought out some interesting scenarios.
Fueled by the magic of espresso, Miami-born Vanessa Montalban channels her wanderlust for far-off worlds into writing speculative fiction. She’s a first-generation grad student at the University of South Florida and a librarian-in-training hard at work creating her own collection of stories.
The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.
Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.
It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.
There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.
“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.
“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.
Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.
It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.
When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.
Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.
“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”
Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”
Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.
They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.
Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.
They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?
After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?
Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.
Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.
Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.
“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.
Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?
“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”
It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.
I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.
“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.
Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.
Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?
The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?
“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”
Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.
It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.
There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.
Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.
“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.
“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”
“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.
“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.
“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.
“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.
“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”
Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.
It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.
The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.
It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.
William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.
Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.
With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.
A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.
As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.
The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.
Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.
Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.
Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.
Giant Robot stands alone on the battlefield. Its hulking titanium shoulders slouch. Its articulated polymer knees bow inward. Its blazing fiberoptic gaze falters, downturned. But Giant Robot experiences neither regret nor remorse while surveying the wreckage at its feet.
It knows only aloneness.
Giant Robot scours the battlefield. It scrutinizes the meat and metal carcasses that litter this desert torched to glass. Servos click a nervous rhythm beneath its knuckled joints. It relocates corpses with the utmost delicacy, but still they crumble in its hands. Underneath, there is only ash. Its gaze sags—
There. A patch of sand between two corpses, shielded by an overturned transport. A desert bloom sprouts, an improbable splay of color. Lavender? Periwinkle?
Blood glazes the corpses’ caved chests, the crimson an unlikely complement to the orphaned flower. Giant Robot commits the image to memory.
Jean would be pleased.
A breeze whistles through a nearby bunker. Each ruptured window offers its own harmonizing tone: a pipe organ of sandbag, plaster, and wind. The western sky flares a brilliant orange.
Giant Robot commits it to memory. Despite the glut of battlefield data it has collected, Giant Robot is still mostly empty.
It presses on, in search of companionship.
Giant Robot is hard on the outside: titanium carapace, thermoplastic sensor shields, kevlar joints. Giant Robot is soft on the inside: silicone insulation, solid state circuitry. Only Jean knows the passcode to Giant Robot’s insides. Only Jean knows where to apply a wrench and where to employ a delicate touch.
It has been three days since Jean last touched Giant Robot’s insides.
Giant Robot’s feet crush everything in its path. Canteens burst like balloons. Bones crumble to dust. Tank shells rupture. Giant Robot has not mastered the skill of walking delicately.
Electromagnetic activity spikes in sector seven. A new threat approaches.
The threat advances rapidly: now active on infrared, now visual. It screams through the air ten meters above the battlefield. Rail guns glisten against the setting sun: now marigold, now marmalade. Twin thrusters rend a trough of metal carnage. Dust eddies toward the horizon.
Giant Robot engages. The dance is awkward at first, a flurry of missteps and missed projectiles. But soon they achieve a rhythm: a tango of fist and plasma. The threat is fast. Lithe. Fast Robot begins to overpower Giant Robot.
Could this be the companion Giant Robot has sought?
As Fast Robot grinds Giant Robot against a trench of metal, Giant Robot plucks a tooth of glass from the personnel transport, reflects the cider-red sunset for Fast Robot to behold. Fast Robot pays no heed to Giant Robot’s offering.
Fast Robot presses the attack.
Giant Robot wrestles free, dives toward the bunker. It swivels its pneumatic stabilizers, blasts a harmonic chord through the windows.
Fast Robot pays no heed. It launches into the air, lands on the desert blossom. Plasma arcs from its wrist-cannon. Giant Robot dodges, swings. Fast Robot’s parry suffers a microsecond delay as high-frequency data packets pelt it from a distant source.
Giant Robot casts its gaze down, crestfallen. Fast Robot is remotely controlled. A proxy. It will never know the colors Giant Robot knows.
The dance persists, though drained of its prior intensity. Seventeen maneuvers later, Fast Robot lies defeated. Smoke curls from ruined thrusters. Rail guns lie mangled.
The sky turns bronze, then rust.
Giant Robot does not know why Jean did what she did, but Command was not pleased. The things she put inside Giant Robot, they said, do not belong. The analyzers. The comparators. The recognition of a frescoed sunrise on descent from the drop ship. The mosaic of flowers during an autumn harvest. A precision of colors. Not blue sky. Cobalt. Not red blood. Wine.
These processes interfere with mission parameters, Command said. A millisecond’s slack in response time is the difference between victory and annihilation, they said. When Jean explained that these processes took mere microseconds, they court-martialed her. She would never again touch the insides of a robot, giant or otherwise.
But Jean thought ahead. She protected Giant Robot’s insides with her passcode. The sun still sets: now clay, now amber.
Giant Robot hesitates. Through a fissure in Fast Robot’s smoldering carapace, a familiar insignia. Command.
Rotors whir from the east. A drone hovers over the battlefield. It emits a high-frequency burst. It whispers the passcode to Giant Robot’s insides.
Giant Robot’s chest plate swings open. The signal cleaves the firewall, enters the prefrontal processor.
Something’s wrong. This is not Jean’s delicate touch. This is harsh, callous. A violation. Someone has stolen Jean’s passcode.
Giant Robot tries to sever the connection but it’s too late. The drone buzzes toward the horizon. Giant Robot zooms in. Despite the distance, Giant Robot recognizes the model: this probe is from Command. Was the duel a test? Did Giant Robot fail?
Giant Robot’s carapace reseals, but something has changed.
It turns westward, detects only the dusty horizon. The sun will set in thirty-four seconds.
It scours the remains of the fallen, finds only a bodycount and the hollow acknowledgement of victory.
It stares at the face of a corpse, but cannot describe the color of her eyes.
Giant Robot has never been emptier.
Heat signatures register in sector nine. The next battle awaits. It turns—and hesitates. At its feet lies the mangled body of Fast Robot. A gouge of molten armor burns…just like…
A digital synapse arcs across a non-networked processor in the softest region of Giant Robot’s body. Giant Robot’s musculature trembles. Its eyes flicker.
Coquelicot. The ember is coquelicot: the first color Giant Robot ever learned. The color of Jean’s hair, tousled as she eased her diodes into Giant Robot’s soft insides for the first time. The hair that sprawled beneath her rigid body within her coffin, self-inflicted wounds sill fresh on her wrists.
Giant Robot grazes the coquelicot ember with an outstretched finger. It registers a surge of pain.
It turns, slightly less empty, and lumbers toward sector nine.
Author’s Note: A while back I was browsing the web looking for some fresh desktop background artwork, and I happened across a piece of original art that captured my attention so intensely I felt compelled to write about it. The image was of a hulking metal robot, standing alone on a battlefield at dusk. Something about the robot – the slope of its massive shoulders, maybe, or the position of its tiny eyes – felt so complex and sad. It was a powerful piece of art, and I can only hope that this story does it justice.
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion. He is a writer, a software developer, a traveler, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he’s lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by three cats. Find him at derrickboden.com.
Ever wonder if your microwave has feelings? What if it felt imposed upon every time you nuked a burrito inside of it? What if the microwave started conspiring with the rest of your kitchen appliances? Would there be any hope left for any of us? Are you also craving a burrito now?
The point that I’m laboring towards here is that machines are becoming pretty sophisticated — so sophisticated that it’s slightly worrisome. There are a number of films slated for release this year that tackle this very issue issue: Chappie, Ex Machina, and the latest installment of the The Avengers franchise. And while there is much chatter about this year as a “good year for robots,” the truth is that robot movies have been around for about as long as robots themselves…or movies, for that matter. One could perhaps make the case that our aversions toward technology are, in essence, the very basis of science-fiction itself. And there are a lot of ways that the newer films will likely echo thematic elements of classic science-fiction films.
Chappie, for instance, will tell the story of a future dystopian society that has come to rely upon a robotic police force. “Chappie” is a police robot that is stolen and reprogrammed so that “he” is sensitive to external stimuli in much that way that human children are. In other words, he is capable of learning and feeling, and his experiences and observations inform his behavior. On the one hand, you might think of it as some bizarre synthesis of Robocop and Kindergarten Cop. You might also see it as a modern day nod to classic sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, wherein the robot is merely a foil to expose how cruel and irrational people can be, and the notion that people are not born to be hateful or violent — societal conditioning plays its part.
Ultron takes a slightly different approach. The film will feature the Avengers crew squaring off against Ultron, a robot that is hell bent on destroying the human race. This narrative treatment is perhaps a little closer in substance to the tech paranoia present in something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the robot itself is a danger because it has been given the agency to make decisions even though it lacks the capacity for empathy, even though “he” is a somewhat sympathetic character “himself” — disturbed even, to borrow a phrase from director Joss Whedon. Ultron is a not a cutesy foil — no part of him is Kindergarten Cop derivative.
Ex Machina is notable for its thematic integration of gender politics. The film revolves around a young computer coder named Caleb who gets the unique opportunity to spend a week in the sprawling estate of Nathan, the head of the tech company that Caleb works for. Within the home, we meet “Ava,” a feminized cyborg who is endowed with remarkable wit and an uncanny facility for verbal communication. Caleb, we learn, has been brought to the sprawling estate on false pretenses: the real reason he has been recruited is so he can perform a Turing test on the robot. Nathan, we learn, has a whole ward of female robot servants that he routinely mistreats. Of the three films discussed in this article, Ex Machina promises to be the most somber and thought provoking.
For everything that’s advantageous about modern technology, there are many risks. And while other people ultimately pose a much greater threat against people than robots pose against people, it’s difficult to completely suppress one’s occasional discomfort with the thought that, in a few decades time, the machines could rise from the kitchen to enslave us all.
These are all tropes well-rooted in Cold War era science-fiction. In the aftermath of nuclear weapons dropped in Japan, the entire planet was left to ponder about what could happen to the world if scientists were allowed to run mad like those kids in that one sequence from Kindergarten Cop. This doesn’t negate all of the wonderful things that contemporary technology has brought us. Automated home security systems are obviously pretty useful (more info here) and so are robotic surgeries (details here). But when you read about technological devices that are used for the sole purpose of harming people…it’s hard to think of that as progress.
Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy.