Extreme Trope Subversion: Robots with Gord Sellar
Click the picture to the left if you’d like to read one of my all-time favorite Clarkesworld stories, from all the way back in 2011’s issue 58. I’ll be talking about how Sellar uses the Robot trope in this story, and I think you’ll find it fascinating. I’ll try to avoid spoilers to the best of my ability.
How does one take an old old trope like this–a trope almost as old as the genre–and flip it on its head for a refreshing story?
In short: I want to write a cool story about metal men!
Word of warning: like a good many Clarkesworld tales, the opening of this story heavily resists being read. I think it’s necessary for the story, but you feel like you’ve jumped into the middle of a very murky pile of story and you have to do a bit of untangling as you go. But the thing is: this story lives and breathes for its final two paragraphs.
Everything beforehand builds just brilliantly to this rather horrifying end that strikes you right in the gut.
“Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika” is a robot story like none I’ve ever read before.
If we’re going to talk about how to subvert the robot trope, we have to go well outside of the story for this one. An important place to start: history of robots. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to go digging through old manuscripts at Alexandria to get the gist of what’s been done-to-death for robots. See, I have this neat detail I’ve noticed: If you’re encountering a twist on a trope in a piece of fiction, it’s probably new and different, as long as the story is recent. If you’re encountering rules/twists for a trope from Hollywood, that “twist” has probably been done to death already.
Case in point, especially relevant to us: Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.”
When Asimov developed these they were true to his work and a new take on robots that seemed to lead the trope away from its fiendish ways. The laws of robotics allowed Asmov’s a lot of potential conflicts and mysteries that his work might have otherwise lacked. But nowadays, so much of his work has been adapted for the screen, and stolen in various ways for other screen-based robot projects, that the very idea that “laws” govern robotic behavior has become cliche-riddled ground.
Asimov adaptations are probably the go-to for understanding what to avoid in robot stories. So for another easy example: Bicentennial Man. If all your robot wants is to become a human, you best find some major way to twist up that premise. (Great movie though, right?)
Beyond that, on to the idea of a “post-human” world. Give robots to the cyberpunks and we have Terminator!
Movies are a gold mine for studying old tropes to see where the danger zones are. Interesting thing about Sellar’s story though is that it riffs off of all three of the ideas I listed below: robotic laws, robots wanting to be human, and a post-human world. Still, it’s obvious that Sellar is aware of these danger zones and really twists the ways that they are used. Here are the ways he does it:
- Voice: The omniscient narrator of this story has such a strong and musical voice. It’s a rare thing, I think, to have a story about robots and humans that seems not to be from the human or robot POV and doesn’t take sides. Ultimately this results in a kind of distance, which is normal for robot stories from the mechanical point of view. But the beauty of it is more like what we’d expect from the falling human civilization. Plus, the middle of the story actually has some sheet music supposedly composed by robots, which you can actually listen to on the site
- Sheer scope: In most robot stories, we’re used to seeing the point in time when the robots rebel, or we see the time when nearly all humans are wiped out. This story covers that whole range from the building of the first robot to the point where robots begin to mourn their lost creators. It skips huge sections of time with no intention of summarizing what’s happened between. Related to the time scope, it also covers a swath of international ground: France, Japan, the pacific ocean. It shows how much of the world ends up.
- Clever references: In a strong thematic moment for the story, Sellar makes a nod to the Three Laws in this sentence: “It is unnecessary to remind them that the mechanika did not end up throwing off their shackles, and inheriting the earth, by breaking the rules of human power, but by observing them, by learning and following them carefully.”
Seems to me that Sellar is deeply aware of the source material he pulls from. An odd contradiction to working with tropes is that you have to both work within the rules people are aware of (so that they can recognize these creatures as robots) but also subvert those rules in new ways (so that you can keep a reader’s attention, so that you can surprise, so you can give new life to this trope that you adore). In this story I think Sellar takes the robot story about as far as it can get before it becomes unrecognizable as such, but he keeps it together and, in the end, really brings it home.
In that way, it’s an extreme subversion.
Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts on subverting tropes or anything you have to say about robots, on the screen or off. What other methods can be used to take old stories and breathe new life into them?