I’m a Real Girl! Robots as Humans in the Pulps

28 Feb

Let me begin by saying that before I sat down to write my blog post for this week, I was torn between two distinct ideas that jumped out at me. One was looking at the portrayal of women in the various texts, specifically at how they are marginalized and/or stereotyped in certain ways. This brilliant idea was going to essentially state that the women in a variety of pulp pieces, certainly in Godwin’s “Cold Equations” and Delrey’s “Helon O’Loy” and arguably in Moore’s “No Woman Born” are treated with a sort of off hand sexism. This is the sort of sexism we see coming from the character of Terry in Bellamy’s Looking Backward: a sexism that treats women as a weaker sex.

the other idea I batted around in my head like a cat with a string toy was the idea of artificial humans, specifically robots. There’s something about the idea of humanity as expressed through robotics that absolutely fascinates me, mostly because it allows us to examine what it truly means to be human and alive with a certain degree of objectivity. Most of the aforementioned stories involved robots to some degree or another, though two in particular jumped out at me: “No Woman Born” and “Helen O’Loy”. Now, as the astute reader has probably noticed, those also happen to be stories that detail the whole women issue. While I am quite certain that there is likely a combination there, something about man creating a perfect woman who is both artificial and humanoid, that is not my initial intent. Mostly because I think I’d be overtaxing myself to discuss both humanity and femininity.

Also, I don’t want to argue with Steve, again. Fun though that is, it does make it seem like there’s some animosity between he and I that I believe does not exist. So instead, I’m going to quibble over a point with another esteemed colleague: Brandon Galm.

Namely, I want to extract a specific comment that Brandon mentions almost in passing during his blog: “Diedre is not real.” Brandon uses this statement and an essay that I have not had the fortune to read, to make a very salient point about Diedre regarding her interaction with her environment (the argument made by Maltzer that she lacks specific senses and therefore cannot interaction as a full human should) and her mimicry of humanity. What I want to argue is something that initially seems to run counter to Brandon’s argument here, but might be considered as more tangential: Diedre is most certainly real, and is in most ways, certainly human. That is, in fact, the whole point of the story.

Harris, the narrator and often champion of Diedre, states roughly halfway through the story (page 16 on my Kindle edition) that “‘She isn’t human…but she isn’t pure robot either. She’s something somewhere between the two, and I think it’s a mistake to try and guess just where, or what the outcome will be'” (emphasis mine). Of course the story itself does argue this point, having Maltzer insist that Diedre is in fact less than human. So what we have here are the two males essentially arguing about the humanity of the supposedly artificial female. And, in many ways (most of which are outlined by Brandon), they are quite right. There does seem to be something decidedly inhuman about Diedre, something that is in between, something not quite right. However, Diedre herself offers the following argument, that “I’m myself–alive. You didn’t create my life…I’m not a robot…I’m free-willed and independent…I’m human” (kindle page 28). Now, I do not want to simply go “see, robot girl thinks she’s human, so she’s human” and use that as my argument (though it does seem convincing and easy, doesn’t it?). Instead, I want to point out that what is being discussed here is something regarding essential humanity. What precisely was it that Maltzer created? What precisely is it that makes Diedre more than/less than/or between actual humanity? For the essence of Diedre has clearly been preserved: this is why she can so easily trick people, especially those close to her. However, the text seems to want us to debate at the same time, to wonder.

Which brings me (hopefully briefly; I’m already feeling this is a super long post) to the story “Helen O’Loy”. Here we also have a perfect female being constructed by men for essentially their pleasures (see, so much to get into). However, Helen soon develops into something more, something “between”. Her creator is all too aware that she is a creation, just as Maltzer is all too aware of Diedre’s supposed artificiality; this is in fact what causes him to pull away from her. Yet there is something decidedly human about Helen. She feels, she loves, she thinks, she has a personality that defies the programming these men put into her. They might have created an initial body, but something else, something more human has arisen from it. Indeed, the story follows this logic, and Helen lives and dies much as a mortal woman would.

So I will now try to bring things back to the point here, as best as I may. These two women are real in very real ways. They are expressing something core to humanity, something that developed beyond the robotics and their cybernetic origins. There is a free-will, a free-thought, and a free-emotional output here that is not artificial or unreal, something that seems to defy the general stereotypes. It seems as though something inherently human has been placed into these beings, creating a life that is something more. I would argue that the women are, in many ways, the most human characters exhibited in their various stories, and certainly “real” in most reasons of the word. This strikes me as one of the major points of robots in science fiction: to discuss the essential within humanity (I’m calling it a soul, give it whatever label makes you most comfortable) and open up ideas for what is truly human. And these women, for better or worse, are precisely that.

(it’s so mostly worse. Just read Steve’s post. If I were writing a paper, I’d essentially wed a lot of the stuff he has to say there, only more narrowly focused on the whole robot thing. I’ve no doubt this will come up later.

And yes, I am big on the essential humanity aspect and robotics. It’s probably what interests me most about science fiction [essential humanity certainly does] and is going to be, to some degree, the focus on my paper.

Okay, I’m totally done now.

For real.

Get it? Real?)

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