Robots in Fiction: A Watch List

By Adam Smith, Lecturer in English Literature



Our business is representation. Whether we be literary scholars, films scholars or creative writers, our business is always representation. Events happen, ideals or anxieties emerge, they get represented, and then we study (or create) the representation. First comes reality, then comes representation. Of course, if you’re half-way through a degree in English, Media or Creative writing you already know that it is never really that easy.


Thinking like this assumes that there exists a dichotomy between reality and representation, between fiction and non-fiction, between the real and the hyper-real. We should always be sceptical of any apparent binary and of this one in particular. One cause for scepticism is that it presumes a chain of influence that only goes one way: something happens and people write about it. Real world stuff becomes fictional stuff. Science becomes science fiction. But what happens when fiction starts to inform reality? What happens when what we imagine informs our lived experience? What happens when science-fiction has an impact on science? Nowhere is there a better example of that, I don’t think, than in robotics.


This was the opening premise of a lecture that I gave earlier this week on ‘2EN440: Imaginary Worlds’, a second-year optional module about science fiction. The module is taken by students on the English, Media and Creative Writing programmes who this week were reading Villiers de L’isle-Adam’s The Future Eve (1886) and watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).


Garland’s Ex-Machina. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link


Over the course of the lecture I referred to an awful lot of films and TV shows (even for me!). Subsequently a few students have asked me to recap everything I recommended, so I’ve written the list up at the bottom of this post.


Before starting your way down the list (make sure you have provisions to hand, it may take some time) let me just give you some context for these suggestions, just in case you didn’t see the lecture itself.


During the lecture, I sought to foreground the peculiar relationship between the fictional robots that saturate our popular culture and the actual robotics industry. After familiarising ourselves with the ‘pop culture’ robot in the form of the Forbidden Planet’s famous Robbie we considered the frustrated perspective of roboticist Joanna Bryson. In her controversial essay ‘Robots Should be Slaves’ Bryson argues that the robotics industry is inhibited by the misguided notion that robots are owed some sort of ethical obligation, a misconception that she blames on science fiction.


Robby the Robot

The representation of the robot as slave has been there from the very beginning. Karel Capek’s play R.U.R (1921), which stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, is often acknowledged as the first popular use of the word ‘robot’ in the sense that we recognise it today, and here it is the Czech word for ‘slave.’ The play essentially stages a slave uprising, with factory robots rebelling against their human masters. Elsewhere literary scholar Gregory Hampton has successfully foregrounded the similarities between American Slave narratives and common robot narratives, a point rendered startlingly overt when comparing a text like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) with Issac Assimov’s Positronic Man (1992), later adapted into the movie The Bicentennial Man (1999).


Hampton finds such treatments of the robot (both inside and outside of fiction) profoundly disturbing. When a relationship is recognisably one of master/slave, regardless of whether the slave is human or robot, born or formed, physical or fictional, there will be harmful psychological side-effects. Hampton stresses that it doesn’t really matter if robots have feelings or not, the question is: how will engaging with robots change us, and what we consider acceptable behavior?


Does it make sense to say Boston Dynamics ‘bullied’ their robot Atlas?


In both of the texts studied by Imaginary Worlds students this week, The Future Eve and Ex Machina, this question is explored through the treatment of robots who are clearly coded as female. In fact, it is central to a series of questions raised by a huge range of science fiction texts interested in what it means to have sex with ‘female’ robots. Can you truly have sex with a robot? Where do you draw the lines of consent? How must you think of robots to want to have sex with them? And, what are the psychological effects on the participating human?


We get a disturbing contemplation of this in Ex Machina, as Domhall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith slowly discovers what Nathan Bateman has been doing with all of the robots on his island, becoming increasingly sadistic in his behaviours as he goes from having sex with the robots to torturing them, only to eventually be killed by the robot Ava in an act that lends itself very openly to a reading in which she is taking cathartic revenge on her depraved abuser. And, just like that, we’re back to slavery again: the common narrative of the megalomaniac slave master who, drunk on the power he holds over other subservient humans, becomes increasingly cruel, killing and raping his own slaves in an overflow of nihilistic and hedonistic violence.


So, what can we take from this? Well, first the idea that when it comes to robotics, for better or worse, the representation can clearly be seen to dictate the reality. Perhaps the most important question is not about whether people should or shouldn’t treat robots badly but about why it is that people feel compelled to treat them badly.


And second, you can take from it the a hugely ambitious list of things to watch, detailed below.




Further Reading


Gregory Hampton, Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film and Popular Culture (2015)

Joanna Bryson, Robots should be slaves, IN: Close engagements with artificial companions (2010)


Watch list (in the order that they appeared in the lecture)


  1. Film


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dir. by Garth Jennings (2005)

Prometheus, dir. by Ridley Scott (2012)

Robocop, dir. by Paul Verhoeven (1987)

Short Circuit, dir. by John Badham (1986)

I, Robot, dir. by Alex Proyas (2004)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dir. by J. J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, dir. by George Lucas (1977)

Wall-E, dir. by Andrew Stanton (2008)

Transformers, dir. by Michael Bay (2007)

Interstellar, dir. by Christopher Nolan (2014)

The Black Hole, dir. by Gary Nelson (1979)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, dir. by Steven Spielberg (2001)

Lost in Space, dir. by Stephen Hopkins (1998)

Aliens, dir. by James Cameron (1986)

Alien, dir. by Ridley Scott (1979)

The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir. by Robert Wise (1951)

The Terminator, dir. by James Cameron (1984)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, dir. by James Cameron (1991)

The Forbidden Planet, dir. by Fred Wilcox (1956)

The Bicentennial Man, dir. by Chris Columbus (1999)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Terminator: Salvation, dir. by McG (2009)

Metropolis, dir. by Fritz Lang (1927)

Austen Powers, dir. by Jay Roach (1997)

Blade Runner, dir. by Ridley Scott (1982)

Ex Machina, dir. by Alex Garland (2014)

Weird Science, dir. by John Hughes (1985)

The Matrix, dir. by Lana and Lily Wachowski (1999)

Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Mamoru Oshii (1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, dir. by Kenji Kawai (2004)

Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Rupert Sanders (2017)


  1. TV


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

Futurama (1999-2013)

Red Dwarf (1988-)

Doctor Who (1952-)

Lost in Space (1965-68)

Humans (2015-)

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

Westworld (2016-)


This is only loosely related to Adam Smith's post, but it's just a great track.
Kraftwerk: representing the robot community since 1978. Fair use, Link


Reviewing Arrival: Space Squids and Paradoxes

By Zoe Buckton


After managing to swipe the last tickets to see ‘Arrival’ with the Imaginary Worlds module, I was stoked to see some sci-fi that wasn’t a reboot (and for free, too!). Having only seen 30-second trailers for the film, I’d assumed it would follow your average ‘defeat the evil aliens!’ storyline. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that ‘Arrival’ focused on communication and language, rather than big guns and all-out war.

The film opens with a voiceover by the protagonist, Dr Louise Bank’s (Amy Adams), in which she considers where her daughter’s story really begins. Usually I’m a bit adverse to voiceovers. But by the end of Arrival, it is clear that these are the glue that holds the cyclical narrative together. Louise’s stream of consciousness is the key to understanding a complex narrative, revolving around bootstrap paradoxes and communication barriers.

Louise’s character is certainly well developed. She is such a talented linguist that she is asked by the military to visit a spacecraft, or ‘shell’, within two days of its sudden appearance. Two days, it’s worth noting, in which she continues to attend university to give lectures to empty classrooms. Of course, she’d be damned if giant squids from space disrupted her teaching schedule.


It is a shame that Louise is the only female main character – in fact, one of the only female characters present. This causes the film to fail the Bechdel test, a flaw that is also shared by director Villeneuve’s 2015 film, Sicario. Indeed, one of the funniest moments in the film comes when Louise interrupts a trigger-happy soldier with the quip, ‘why do I have to talk to him?’

Ian Donnelly, on the other hand, proves that slapping some glasses on Jeremy Renner is enough to constitute a scientist. Whilst his friendship (and inevitable romantic arc) with Louise is great fun to watch, watching a physicist refuse to do any actual physics is rather concerning. Especially when his primary response to intense gravitational distortion is a mere stumble, without a sign of fascination.

The film shares many elements with the psychological horror ‘The Babadook’, increasingly dependent on dreams, sleep deprivation and hallucination to create a sense of unreliability. These elements are ultimately manifestations of Louise’s mindset adapting to the Heptapod language. A language which is complex, palindromic and resembles tea-rings so much it’s a shame the humans couldn’t introduce them to coasters.

The scenes of communication between the Heptapods, affectionately nicknamed Abbot and Costello, are arguably the best moments of the film. ‘Arrival’ spends majority of its run-time attempting to establish discussion with aliens behind misted glass, pushing back military action all the while. This feels particularly prevalent in our society, which is reluctant to embrace discussion with minorities and refugees, fogging up these issues with misleading media representations and fear of the unknown.

It is hard to deny that the film is gorgeous. Louise’s house is like the Cullen’s, all glass and view. The soundtrack, finely composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, mixes dread and child-like wonder through acapella acoustics and daunting basslines. The twelve spaceships hovering above the Earth’s surface resemble Airwick’s attempts to make air fresheners in keeping with minimalist decor. Or, if you prefer, very large eggs. There is barely any Michael Bay style explosion flaunting. Yet, where scenes depict changes in gravitational force, and the Heptapods themselves, the film shows a subtle ability to create intriguing visuals with little displays of incongruity.

‘Arrival’ was an intriguing film. I’ve avoided spoiling the ending in this review, because I really believe it’s worth watching for yourself. Although the film did leave me with a lot more questions than answers (which you can see here [spoilers]), perhaps this is the point. After all, isn’t it better to leave the cinema with big, existential questions than none at all?