observations and opinion
Are you happy yet? Part 2
Sometime between when she opened the second bottle of wine and he turned on the air conditioner, came the robots. It was a hot night. I was grateful for the air conditioning, grateful for the wine (less grateful for it when I woke up in the guest room a few hours later). But robots?
At the time, I was undergoing a form of Vulcan mind meld. From the part of Vulcan where they drink Pinot Grigio and dress their popcorn with truffle oil. The nice part of Vulcan, where gently and elegantly, they extract the contents of your head. Where they take you from “what are you doing this summer?” to “what are you doing with your life?” before you notice your glass is empty again.
To be fair, I had volunteered. She had such a look of burrowing scepticism on her face, like there was a question mark tattooed on her forehead, one felt almost compelled to talk. Now, by “talk” I don’t mean the ice dancing that I’m such a champ at. I’m talking talk talking. It started lightly. I mentioned that this summer, as part of our mutual reading list deal, I insisted that my kid read Little Women.
Now, whatever your opinion of Little Women may be, my host and hostess were unimpressed. I was assailed (in gentle manner, “more wine?”) for my choice: a long, dull extract from the high school canon. Torture for teenaged eyeballs. Ugh. Heads shook in quiet condemnation. What a cruel father I was. No fun.
I tried to justify it: true, it’s a grind to work through mid 19th Century syntax and dialogue. Yes, Jo March gets to be a little tiresome. Marmie more so. But the book has warmth and beauty and is Important. Important in general. Important to me.
“You should give her something by Isaac Asimov” my friend said. I eyed him carefully. Asimov. I visualized the stack of turgid Foundation books, laying out the story of galactic civilization like a U.N. briefing report on the borders of Iraq in 1945. “Asimov, hmm?” I said, trying to pretend to look open-minded. Within seconds the necessary book was named: “I, Robot”.
I, Robot. Most readers know the novel because of the movie, a film which ironically enough is more inhuman and robotic than any of its characters. But Asimov’s book was an early and crucial entry into the “Science Fantasy / Science Fiction / Scientifiction / Sci Fi” genre (Sci Fi is the Canada of literary styles, rather insecure and constantly re-branding). It’s an important book too.
The robot theme wasn’t new with Asimov. There were plenty of dopey, arm-swinging robot soldiers populating the stories. The amazing Klaatu came stalking down the ramp of the spacecraft in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” with his God-like death ray and ability to raise the dead. But those spooky, alien robots – vacuum cleaners with eyes, basically – were just tools for terror, mayhem or cheap labour.
More important were the robots who somehow, reminded us of ourselves. The list of a-little-bit-human mechanical people leaps out of one’s memory like frogs on stone steps: some are comic and shallow (C3PO and R2D2), some are menacing (the first Terminator) some are self-sacrificing father figures (the second Terminator) and some are creepily unsettling (the Stepford Wives, one book that seems to be coming true in certain places). Some robots are good teachers (like the title figure in a lovely film with a terrible title, “Frank and Robot”). They often have metal heads and one big eye.
But the kind of robot that matters, as in I, Robot, is no alien. It’s you. It’s a you whose inner life is so contained as to be unseen by those around you. It is most recognizably the teenaged you – a swirling interior storm inside an impassive exterior. An early popular incarnation was the poor Tin Man of Oz, a creature whose hard metal casing contained a soft, liquid soul. This was the essential robot quality: a deep humanity, locked and usually unrecognized, inside an often beautiful shell. That’s what makes him you.
Star Trek nailed this with three characters: first Mr. Spock, a flesh and blood being whose upbringing compelled him to suppress the feelings surging within him; next with Mr. Data, a mechanical man yearning to know human feeling. The third, and arguably most interesting and tormented, was Seven of Nine. Stolen in childhood and transformed into a half-machine monster by the Borg, the rescued “Seven” spent the rest of her TV existence angrily resisting the demands placed on her by everyone – her own feelings, her robot implants, other people – to conform to any model of behaviour. She just wanted to be herself. Many men fell for Seven of Nine, but I think just as many women felt like Seven of Nine.
Yet it was Philip K. Dick who delivered the most tragically human of synthetic souls. In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” converted into the film “Blade Runner”, we meet the replicants. Beautiful, brilliant, strong, their hearts bursting with passion, these artificial people are all too real: like teenagers, they burn through a short life. No-one sees them for who they really are (no-one wants to, they just want the replicants to do their work well and keep their rooms clean).
In every one of these tales, the true life churns inside the shining shell. This is familiar because it is true, and it is true because it is necessary. We have to be contained. Even as a child, I had many good reasons to become a robot: I grew up with people who were so swamped by their own stuff, it leaked out all over the house. Somebody had to stay sober and tidy up. I remember feeling a wave of seasickness at the first sign of self-pitying tears or self-indulgent agonies. Contempt stiffened my spine. Not for me the combustible furies surrounding me; cool detachment was what I admired.
There was another reason why I didn’t show, or even know, how I felt: it didn’t matter. Nobody was listening. Not me, anyway. My suspicion is that young people know full well that they’re being ignored in a very true way, except for their performance. So they perform. Like robots.
And too often, they remain so, even as the tin case gets rusty. This doesn’t mean a person is made of stone. Hell, robots have feelings – more than they know what to do with. The hazard is not knowing they do, then stepping on them one day, like a landmine in the bathroom. Deaf to the orchestra playing right behind them, till somebody clashes the cymbals and bam – a heart attack. Staring straight into beauty and not conjuring the words to match how moved he is inside. Being seen as beautiful, in some way or other, yet doubting it can be true. Irritating almost, is that.
I, Robot. The heartache of the literary robot is that whether they look human or not, they aren’t seen that way. They are seen only as others see them. And the heartache of the human robot, perhaps, is the unwillingness to see himself, or to be truly seen. This being familiar and true, there is a considerable case for putting Isaac Asimov on the reading list. I, Robot captures an essential, inescapable aspect of human life. I will not quarrel with my mind-melding friends about this book.
But I wouldn’t be drafting a reading list – and I would have no-one to give it to – had I not travelled to Cape Cod one summer and met a girl named Beth. Beth was no robot. Shy, imperfect and modest, Beth knew instinctively what was beautiful about herself. And she knew what was beautiful about others, too.“I’m not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.”
No-one ever fell in love with Beth March before she died; everyone just loved her. And her sisters: intensely ambitious Jo, sage and strong Meg, even sneaky beautiful Amy – they too were easy to love. But what I loved about them most, was how they loved each other. These were humans who respected themselves enough to be human, who were strong enough to be frail. No-one had to be ruthless or perfect; no-one had to be deaf to their own hearts or others’ hearts. All they had to be was themselves, together, and even as they lost each other, they found solace in each other. There were no robots in Little Women.
Could people outside of those pages be as real, as imperfect yet so good to each other, as the March family? Can we? Among our friends, or even families? Is there such a thing as a love that lets you be real – that you can trust enough to fall into? “Slowly, then all at once,” to quote a more recent literary girl. I had my doubts then. I closed the book on Beth and looked up. Four a.m. Dawn was near.
There is a beach at Wellfleet, on the Atlantic side of the Cape. I hesitated, as always, and then for once, did not. I jumped in, swimming out to greet the sun in a great golden pool. The night burned away, the new day came and the sand welcomed me back. Then I went back to the house. But only to the house.
That was a long time ago. In the months that followed, I turned my whole life over, like a shovelful of earth. No, Louisa May Alcott did not transform me from machine to man. The salty sea did not rust my parts till they fell away until I was free. I am not yet free. I don’t really believe that my feelings matter, but I know yours do. And mine are getting harder to ignore. That’s progress, even if it hurts.
It seems to me that one cannot be a robot for so long and in so many ways, only to transform into something else entirely. This is Alcott, not Kafka. Besides, I don’t want to transform entirely: I still admire dignity and poise, I still want to be the calm in the chaos. I’m still the cop who comes to the door: “Are you alright m’am?” And down the hall, standing half in shadow, a little boy watches me. He doesn’t want me to leave. But I do leave. He will learn to take care of himself.
Naturally, I wish something different for Junior. She is such a dignified and wise person, I hope she can navigate the choppy currents of feeling, not just stand on the shore. She is brave enough to do it, braver than me, and I can see already she has a stronger stroke. She’s not Spock. She’s Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy, swimming out to greet the sun.
So Little Women stays on the list. But okay, let’s add I, Robot. Just for fun.
Another glass of wine? Sure, that would be nice. Next question?