It’s no secret that I’m a fan of comic books and science fiction. It’s been a means of escape and thinking for years that has often served to shed light upon existing technologies or think about the future.
Whether this means rejecting an idea in fiction or taking it on, depends a lot on the story. So far as I can see though, writers in this genre work hard on objectives that are common in the development of technology. Not just the mechanisms and how things might work in different environments, but the way that it might be applied to daily life in the futures of different countries.
When I get a moment to track down some fiction to read these days, I particularly like sci-fi from places outside of Western culture. It’s more interesting to me to read through books like Cyberabad Days or read a view on African sci-fi in comparison with the tropes and themes of the future in American or English settings.
To my credit or detriment, all of the comic books and novels I had time to read now sit somewhere in my memory and more often than not, they pop up when I am talking to technologists today.
Sometimes this is a pain, expectations exceed what is possible now. Also, I am certainly not saying that all new technologies should be viewed through a sci-fi lens, for obvious reasons.
A few weeks ago I went to the Robots on Tour expo in Zürich. Along with the rather amazing leaders in the field that I was privileged enough to speak to, I also chatted idly with students from the Zürich robotics lab.
The nice thing about an idle chat, is that you’re free to get excited and veer off-piste. The students I spoke to were working on advanced robotics and it’s thrilling to learn from them, they know so much.
The reason I brought up certain stories and ideas in these chats, was not to keep up (there’s no way I could keep up!) but that I felt that certain authors had explored moral, ethical and social scenarios relating to robotics and bionics.
I was surprised to find that the students I spoke to had not read some of the stories that I thought were mainstream. That said, I can’t blame them – time is a luxury, especially while in intensive learning, so I can see why maybe they are not encouraged to stuff their heads with fictional things when they have more than enough to grasp according to a curriculum. Focus is good.
I was asked to provide a list that had influenced some of my thinking about robotics. Now, most of my thinking about robotics is related to asking experts, so I’m not entirely living in a fantasy of Terminators and Transformers.
For one student in particular who asked, here’s a starter list and by no means a complete one. I’ve kept it brief - I’d rather not provide spoilers.
I have purposefully avoided Asimov. I know. But I think it is a given for robot reading (no?). The laws of robotics are well-known and updated in the real world by the excellent Kate Darling. If you have not read her work – more fool you. Get on it - Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots.
Either way – here’s a start.
Cyberabad Days – Ian McDonald. Set in India in 2047. This is not a book about looking at a developing market for tech, but a different perspective with some really nice fresh ideas on how we might live with tech in symbiosis.
Machine Man – Max Barry. I love this book. It’s essentially about bionic prosthesis. It asks questions in an incredibly blunt way. I laughed reading it too. Maybe not the most serious book about the future of the field, but one that doesn’t dance around the issues and steps through pity, envy and threat as social observations.
Neuromancer – William Gibson. This made me think about body modification and prosthesis. Obviously this is an extreme but the changes that the character Molly Millions has undertaken suit her profession made me wonder about more everyday possibilities.
Snowcrash - Neal Stephenson. Again the body modification theme was interesting to me. A form of protection in the case of the character YT. But not so far from speculation today with a much deeper cultural history.
JG Ballard’s short stories are fantastic. I have Vol.1 and Vol.2. A well-crafted short story can be breathtaking. Writers like Ballard and Gibson have managed to sear ideas into my mind within a few pages that novels have mashed around.
Ray Bradbury also writes astonishing tales. Linked to robotics one of the stories I tend to remember is ‘Marionettes Inc‘. You’ll find it in The Illustrated Man collection. For me, Bradbury puts a lot of human layers over tech stories. I like it a lot.
Not related to robotics but in the same collection is Kaleidoscope. It’s a miserable story, tightly written. The BBC has an audio version that comes and goes on the iPlayer. The first time I heard it read aloud, even though I was familiar with it, I bawled my eyes out. Maybe it was just the day, all stories are different each time you read or hear them. Miserable or not, I think it’s great writing.
I also love comic books. The illustrations of Darick Robertson in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan series ring true with me. Maybe a different shape but UAVs for journalists and broadcast networks. Familiar much? They’re in there.
Ellis’ Global Frequency also made me think more about networks and people. But again, a little off topic for robots.
There’s so many to choose from, such brilliant ideas and scenarios worked out one way or another. If I had all the time in the world, I’d love to take my favourites, switch one element or decision and see where those stories take me.
For those looking for a comprehensive list of robots in fiction – knock yourself out with the Wikipedia page. It’s enormous and you never know where it might take you.
I don’t suggest that sci-fi should compete with factual learning. What I am wondering is whether noting the examples of the past can unlock new ideas for students?
Should robotics and science students be reading science fiction? Does it help at all or is it a hindrance?
Getting stuck in the tropes and ideas of existing TV shows and books might not breed fresh thinking. At the very least it outlines what has passed. In a similar way I studied art history when I was a student of painting and drawing. I learned from what had already been done and it helped me to try not to reinvent the wheel.
Are there more works that should be here? Robotics in written fiction?
I’m looking for a book list, not movies and TV for now. If you have a favourite – jump in the comments to say what and why it influenced the way you think about robots.
All the better if you already work in the field – it would be interesting to know if reading sci-fi is like a busman’s holiday for you.
And for once…not Asimov. (Much as I still have an affection).