Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Fifteen

Robot Monster

One recurring theme in the original Star Trek is the machine or computer as the enemy of human beings. At least seventeen of the seventy-nine episodes play on some variation of that theme. Today's episode of This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow, called "Captain Kirk vs. the Internet," does as well, just in time for this article.

Machines and computers have been the enemy in lots of TV shows, movies, and science fiction stories. There were even machine-monsters on the cover of Weird Tales. I'm still on the trail of a monster for the twenty-first century, a monster I think could be a hybrid. Machines and computers may contribute some genetic material to that hybrid.

Metropolis (1927), one of the earliest science fiction movies, is many things, one of which is an industrial dystopia in which men are made parts of their machines. The inventor Rotwang creates a robot double for the heroine Maria. The double, called a Maschinenmensch (Machine-man), is sort of an evil twin. She is also the first robot in movies. Although there had been machine-men in popular culture before 1927, the word robot itself was then new, having been introduced to the world in Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. The title stands for Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word robot refers to forced labor or serfdom and comes from the word rab or "slave." The robot is the first of two monsters that began as a slave but has since turned the tables on humanity. The other is the zombie, a monster for another posting.

There have been lots of robots, androids, cyborgs, machines, and computers to assume the role of the monster or the enemy of humanity. A short list:
  • Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks--Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
  • Westworld (1973)
  • The Stepford Wives (1975)
  • The Black Hole (1979)
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  • The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The title of this posting comes from the 1953 "classic," Robot Monster.

The machine-monster plays the same roles that flesh-and-blood monsters play: as the alien invader (Daleks), the psychotic killer (HAL 9000; the Gunslinger from Westworld), the totalitarian (Colossus), the seeming human that passes among us but is not one of us (the Stepford Wives; the androids from Blade Runner), the demon or devil (Maximillian from The Black Hole), and the ruler over a dystopian future (The Terminator movies and The Matrix movies). In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the crew of the Enterprise encounter the Borg, machine-monsters capable of recruiting new members to their collective. In that, the Borg aren't very much different from the vampires in I Am Legend, the Pod People in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the zombies of today. What one of the Pod People says about his own alien and soulless people is just as true for the Borg or today's zombies: "Always more of us, fewer of you."

My sense is that machine-monsters can be effective villains, but that they're only a variation on flesh-and-blood monsters. I wonder if there has ever been a machine-monster that is truly machine-like, truly alien to us, like the planet Solaris is alien. I suspect it's impossible for a machine-monster to be truly alien, because all the things that make a monster monstrous are also within us as human beings. Put another way, a machine has never done anything to us that we have not done to ourselves or to each other.

Machines began as tools or as servants or slaves, like the original roboti. The threat represented by them has always been threefold: that they might rebel and murder us, that our machines might become the masters and we the slaves, and perhaps most significantly, that we might become more like them and less like ourselves. Captain Kirk always fought against the dehumanization and enslavement of human beings by machines and by the human enablers of machines. That's the subject of today's cartoon by Tom Tomorrow. But will Kirk fail this time? Are we not now in the process of dehumanizing and enslaving ourselves and each other with our machines? Are we not creating a dystopian world in which the individual counts for less and less, the Borg collective for more and more? And are we not becoming monsters, making monsters, and recruiting monsters against our own humanity?

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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