Ana Matronic is most renowned as the female vocalist in American disco/glam rock band Scissor Sisters. Now it would take a heart of stone and feet like lead weights to remain entirely unmoved by the bands’ supremely ear-wormy toe-tap inducing tunes, but as I’m not a particular follower of their genre of music in general, I confess I hadn’t realised until recently that Matronic is also huge robot fan. On reflection, her (wonderful) choice of moniker and the large tattoo of circuity on her arm really should have clued me in already. But any gaps in my knowledge of or appreciation for Matronic’s interest in all things robot (which I very much share) have now been filled by the arrival of this stylish coffee table volume.
In Robot Takeover Matronic collects and discusses 100 of the most iconic robots, mixing characters from myth, history and pop-culture with real products of scientific invention. Her passion for the subject gleams like polished chrome from every page. With me, of course, she was preaching to the converted, but her enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless and the chatty warmth of her tone provides a wonderful counterpoint to the stereotypically cold mechanical reserve of some of the characters she discusses.
The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favourite things. When people ask, ‘why robots?’ I can get a bit confused. Doesn’t everybody love robots?
If you’re already one of Matronic’s “everybodies” then this book may not offer you too much in the way things you didn’t know, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and the chance to reminisce on a few pop-cultural favourites as well meeting some new mechanical faces. If you’re a member of that hard-to-compute group who don’t love robots, well realistically I guess you’d be unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. But if you do take the plunge you’ll find a great introduction to why robots matter as well as to the important understanding that a “takeover” need not always be a negative thing…
Rather than offering a traditional top 100 countdown format, Matronic groups her robots thematically. It’s a smart move. Instead of making entirely arbitrary value judgments (because, let’s face it, “coolness” is a nebulous concept and how can you really compare, say, The T-800 with a Roomba using one set of criteria) the groupings allow her to highlight wider themes of cultural influence and imagination, showing how notions first born in ancient myth have picked up in literature, film and finally science fact. There are two main sections: “Robots Imagined” focuses on pop-culture and mythology, while “Robots Realized” tracks real scientific advances. Various subsections offer tighter thematic clusterings, from the helper bots of “Servants, Sidekicks and Saviours” through to the cyborgs imagined in “The Human Machine.” In all cases the focus is on breadth rather than depth. Most entries receive, at most, a page of description and an accompanying image, which isn’t a great deal. So this isn’t the place to come for in depth character studies but it’s a great insight into the range and pervasiveness of the human dreams – and nightmares – of artificial intelligence.
Indeed, the breadth of Robot Takeover is one of the book’s real strengths: all the behemoths of robot pop-culture are present and correct within its pages, just as you’d expect. But alongside megastars like the Star Wars droids and 2001‘s Hal, Matronic includes plenty of characters who are lesser known but no less deserving of emphasis, such as Robot from the underrated movie Robot and Frank. The literature buff in me was thrilled by the inclusion of Yod from Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, a novel that Matronic hails as ”one of the most sensitive portayals of artificial intelligence I’ve ever read” – a description I whole-heartedly endorse. Indeed, Robot Takeover offers a good grounding for Robo Readers, highlighting many classic literary characters like Asimov’s Robbie while also adding a few new names to my future reading list, such as Archos from Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse.
Robot Takeover was only published this autumn and while its focus may stretch as far back as Talos from Greek myth or – in the real robots section – Su Song’s cosmic engine, it also brings the story pretty well up to date, in pop cultural terms at least. “Robots Realized” examines inventions only up to and including 2010, although there are plenty of insertions on prospects that are still in development such as nanobots; but “Robots Imagined” feels very contemporary, including as it does, some of the most recent robot characters to hit our screens in 2015.
By offering thematic groupings rather than a strictly hierarchical/ranked list, Matronic eschews many of the kinds of arguments that usually plague robot list articles. There’s no need here to argue whether Bender, say, should score better than Bishop, readers are simply encouraged to identify and enjoy the attributes of both. But of course, 100 really isn’t that many when your focus ranges from ancient legend the present moment, so I’m sure plenty of readers will still have quibbles when it comes to who’s in and who’s out. Me? Well my only real complaints about the choices made in Robot Takeover would be the slight over-representation of Doctor Who with Davros, the Daleks and K9 all receiving separate attention. While these characters are iconic and certainly represent different aspects of how robots can be imagined, 3 entries for the same franchise does feel a little bit “here and now” especially given the current popularity of all things TARDIS shaped. By contrast, Marvel’s robots receive much less attention: Iron Man is represented as a strong example of an archetype but I could easily have sacrificed one of the Who entries to see a character like Vision or MODOK.
Generally, though, I was pretty happy with the diversity of robots included here. While each entry in this enormous range can necessarily only receive a brief introduction and overview, Matronic does a great job of justifying her choices, capturing what makes each robot significant and influential: from the Art Deco aesthetics of Metropolis‘ Maria, who embodies the fear and attraction of the programmable seductress, through to the loyal wind-up Tik Tok, from Ozma of Oz. Although the film version of this book, the wonderfully dark Return to Oz, was a childhood favourite of mine, I hadn’t previously realised that the rotund clockwork man was the first robot character “to be attributed the clipped and staccato speech pattern now accepted as standard for robot voices.”
While snippets like this are really interesting, what I like most about Robot Takeover is the way that Ana Matronic makes it such a personal journey, sharing not just facts but her own reactions to and memories of many of the characters she discusses. I particularly loved her anecdote about the joys of robot toy collecting, and better still, of actually playing with these damn things:
Around 1997 I paid a pretty penny for a mint-in-sealed box fembot doll to add to my Bionic Woman toy collection. It sat for a few years until, one Christmas morning, I treated myself and opened it for a fight with my Jaime Sommers doll. The fembot came with a disguise and two faces, one of which Jaime’s. Words cannot express how satisfying it was to rip them off.
As her fascination with these 1970s “weapons of mass seduction” suggests, Matronic doesn’t shy away from the darker side of robot possibility, both imagined and actualised. The pop-culture section offers a whole chapter on “Murderous Malfunctions and Facist Machines” – notably with contents notably drawn entirely from Western Culture. Though not highlighted explicitly, the book’s examples clearly show the differences between Western anti-AI anxiety and the more positive, practical attitude to robots in countries like Japan, something I’ve noted before on this blog and which Matronic herself comments on in this interview with The Guardian. Meanwhile, the collection’s more factual second half includes more than a few military bots such as BigDog, whose appearance and potential for further weaponisation are highlighted as particularly troubling.
Matronic writes that “from the very first use of the word robot we have been envisioning them turn on us.” Indeed, the phrase “Robot Takeover” immediately invokes notions of rebellion, of machines “doing a Skynet” to borrow a phrase from one franchise that has been so instrumental in popularising fears of a robopocalypse. Yet a “Takeover” isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in business terms company takeovers can prove extremely lucrative and successful. And the phrase also evokes notions of passion and obsession, of an interest or hobby that “takes over your life” which again could prove dangerous, or tremendously enriching and fulfilling. Much of the best art and science is born from single-minded pursuit of an idea, and for this we should be grateful. Robot Takeover nicely straddles the positive and negative extremes of its title. Skynet gets an entry, but so too does Paro the adorably fluffy, seal shaped therapy tool who is now used help calm patients across the world in what has to be “the nicest kind of robot takeover ever.” Ana Matronic’s overall tone is cautiously optimistic: “Yes there is danger in creating something that can think for itself. But if every human were afraid of that, we’d never have children.”
Good or bad, robots are always a fascinating reflection humanity’s hopes and fears. This is the notion at the core of Robot Takeover, a wide ranging and attractive-looking volume that manages to offer a solid-if-brief introduction to a robot history and theories such as transhumanism, without sacrificing its chatty tone and sense of fun. Whatever the future might hold for us in terms AI advancements, the love and enthusiasm with which this book has clearly been compiled makes me grateful for the extent to which Ana Matronic has already allowed robots to take over her life.
Next time on Robo Reads: R reviews Speak by Louisa Hall.