The golden age of pulp science fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine. Authors like Clifford Simak, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury blew the covers off Galaxy Magazine and Astounding Science Fiction during the 1950s. Their best efforts spoke directly to the fear and bigotry of the era. They could get away with it too because there was latitude in SF when other genres had none or very little to offer.
Science fiction is always written for the present. It may imagine the future, but it’s not speaking to it. As a result, an old pulp can be uniquely appreciated as a window into the forgotten dreams of another generation. Their visions are forever frozen in the time they were first published – like a mosquito locked in amber. This leaves us free to perform an autopsy on their predictions and ponder the folly of our own.
For me, there is no more endearing symbol of failed prediction than that venerable science fiction staple: the robot. Even on the pages of a pulp, where words can create any visual one dares to implant in the mind of a reader, you’ll be stopped dead in your tracks by the description of a robot that sounds implausibly bulky, slow, stupid and dated. He is very often derivative – a man-shaped collection of metal boxes who has analog dials for eyes and light bulbs for ears. He may even print out paper reports like a typewriter or have a built-in liquor cabinet in case you forgot yours.
But I don’t love old robots just because their silly, I love them because robots are unlike any other technological achievement we dare to dream up. Sure, a rocket will take you to the moon and a flying car would be a great way to get to work, but a robot in its fully-realized SF form is meant to live by your side. It’s the promise of companionship and assistance, but there is also an element of the mastery of life in its conception – something we often reserve for the divine. There’s a do we dare? part to the robot equation, one that speaks to the foundation of what it means to be human. That’s why we are so desperate to imagine them.
In pop-culture, you don’t have to look too far beyond films like Metropolis or Forbidden Planet or Star Wars to get a delicious sampling of the iconic robot evolution the twentieth century left for us. Sure, the real answer to “What will they look like?” is probably us. But that can’t satisfy our need to dream them up on paper, on film, or – one day – in the flesh.
Robots in SF are just characters in a story like any other. But when left to age on the shelf they become a beautiful reminder of just how horrible we are at predicting our future. It’s exciting, really – the fact that we have no idea what is going to happen to us down the road. It makes the adventure of humanity a real cliff-hanger each and every day.
The robot also reminds us that all things must past – that we too will one day be looked upon as quirky curiosities from an era that no longer exists. They’re a reminder that science fiction and the dreams we create within it are not futuristic at all: they are mortal. They will perish with us, forever reincarnated as a message from the past that future generations will inevitably pick apart and find humor in. But even the most ludicrous examples will offer a visual of what we intended to hand down through hard work and innovation and, above all, imagination.
How future generations get to where they are is entirely up to us. And though, as individuals, we might not have the gifts to see it coming – as a human collective, we can work out the true path all of us are on.
And we will. And that’s so awesome.