Tag Archives: robots

Chapter 8: Robot Times

In which Oso is menaced by a gun-wielding robot!

“Wait,” Stephanie protested. “You beat up Granddad? Because that’s not what he says. He only told the part where he used you as a ball and ended up in jail for terrorism.”

“Let me correct that deceptive notion Oso has conjured. We both ended up in jail, but not for very long. They held us until our parents could pick us up. In my case, I only had a mom. Oso’s dad picked him up.”

“So you weren’t held on charges of child terrorism until your parents could pay the fine?”

“Yes, we were. My mom paid the fines for both of us. She had a good job at Tech and a credit card. Oso’s dad had neither. His family rarely dabbled in money.”

“How did they pay their rent?”

“They grew most of their own food and took handouts for the rest. They did a lot of trading of goods, but his dad would sell a piece of furniture if they needed the cash. He was an amazing artisan.”

“I know. My mom still has some of his pieces. A chest, a bookcase, and a rocking chair. Someday, maybe she’ll give me the rocking chair. That’s what I have dibs on.” She shifted on the couch and sipped her tea, feeling dreamy.

“Yeah, so you can be like all your kind, playing the game.”

“How is inheriting a rocking chair playing a game?”

“What do you plan to do with this rocking chair? Knit? Rock babies? Do women even have babies these days?”

“Civilization hasn’t completely died out yet, so I’m assuming they do.”

“You aren’t women. You merely play at being women.”

“I don’t have to play at anything. I’m a woman by birth. How did we get on this subject? Uncle Gilly, we need to refocus.”

“Do you knit?”

“No, not much. I don’t have time for hobbies.”

“You’re admitting you do occasionally knit, then? You know how to?”

Stephanie closed her eyes for a moment, her fingers to her forehead, and thought things through. Like a teacher with a student, an interviewer had to keep the interviewee focused, allow them some leeway, but direct and redirect the conversation. This had not happened with her granddad, as he was always direct and tended not to go down rabbit trails. There was nothing of the “rabbit” about her granddad. Gilly, as he sat there, a satirical smile turning up half his mouth, was a different kind of person. He might have endless warrens in his brain which she didn’t want to get lost in.

“I have an idea. Why don’t we do these interviews with Granddad? It might be useful to write one book with two perspectives, rather than two books. Also, I’m not sure how this is going to work, with the two of you telling me different stories. I think we should do this as a threesome.”

The chill that entered the room could have frozen the summer sun. True, she had thought of the idea because it fit in with her general efficiency model, but having her granddad control the rabbit trails instead of having to do it herself…it was tempting, to say the least.

The risk was that Gilly would cease having any voice at all, even when her granddad wasn’t present. “We can talk about this later, if you want. We should get this session done first.” When Gilly continued to glare at her, his mouth clamped shut, she reassured him, “No Granddad here right now.”

“No, just his little minion,” Gilly spat.

“You lived near Granddad, right? You became friends?”

“Yes, I guess we did.”

Gilly’s mom had scrimped and pinched until she had enough to buy a parcel of land, a decent singlewide, and a manufactured outbuilding. It was, as already stated, right next door to the Beñat place. There were several empty lots’ worth of space before arriving at the crazy amputee’s place, which abutted the large empty lot belonging to Bernadette’s family. The street went around in a circle and eventually ended up back at Gilly’s house. They all lived on the same street, in other words, even though Bernadette’s house was at the back of theirs.

In recent days, there was a rumor circulating that Oso and Bernadette were an item. Oso had a special charm for girls, especially pretty ones like Bernadette. Gilly couldn’t decide whether he admired Oso or hated him. Oso was…at ease. That was all that could be said.

Perhaps the hatred was never entirely eradicated from Gilly’s perspective, but Gilly and Oso reconciled with each other the day Gilly threatened Oso with a very big robot. Standing at just over six feet tall, it was the largest robot Gilly had ever built. He had to stand on a stool to work on it. But it was clunky and had wires sticking out here and there. Essentially, it was the tin man wired up like a computer, except that it wasn’t made with tin at all, but polycarbonate, which was nearly transparent. But it looked about as dopey as the tin man. Still, it could do things, if he controlled it from the luxury of his PC inside his bedroom in the trailer.

A couple months into the school year, Gilly decided to stop riding the bus to school. The bus held too many memories of bullying. Instead, he took to riding his bike, which got him home precisely ten and a half minutes before the bus. In a strange reversal, Oso had started riding the bus to school. The rumor mill told Gilly this was because Oso and Bernadette made out in the back of the bus. Gilly doubted the veracity, as Bernadette was the type of girl no boy could touch.

For a start, she was the prettiest girl in the seventh grade. Aside from that, when the two disembarked, they were never physically attached in any way. From his dining room window, Gilly could watch them disembark from the bus, and then if he darted to the opposite dining room window, he could watch Oso walk with her down the dirt alley by the side of Agnes’ trailer and across the yard to her back porch, where her mom was usually watering her hundreds of flowerpots.

However, Gilly couldn’t see them disembarking or walking from his bedroom window, where his computer was. That’s why he had a camera mounted behind the robot eyes, which he had arranged to be standing in the middle of the drive. It had taken a lot of engineering to get the robot to the point where it could balance and walk at the height of six feet. But Gilly had managed it with the help of his uncle, who was a materials engineer. No matter that it took roughly forty-five seconds for the robot to take a step. It was essentially a grandiose suit of armor. With a camera. And airguns, created with co2 cartridges, mounted on its arms.

From behind his computer screen, Gilly watched and waited. When Oso and Bernadette wandered into view, he shouted via the mic system, “Stop or die!”

It was perhaps the only time he’d ever seen Oso look startled. So did Bernadette, though she didn’t scream as Gilly had hoped. Oso, recovering quickly, walked up to the robot and knocked on it, as though there might be a gremlin hiding inside operating it. Gilly had played out numerous scenarios in his head, but not one in which the fear and wonderment would be lost so quickly. He had to act fast in order to recoup.

With his sights set, he raised one of the air rifles and shot at the intended target, a garbage can across the road. Bernadette, her eyes wide, reached out as though to take hold of Oso’s arm, who appeared to shove her roughly away from him; Gilly couldn’t see, as Oso was so close to the robot he was out of camera range. That was a pity because in a matter of seconds, the camera range was the wide blue desert sky. It was a picturesque shot, with a V of geese flying overhead, so peaceful, so…. Oso had knocked the robot over! Gilly’s life work, not respected, not feared, bowled over by a stupid fascist pig.

Gilly leaped from his chair and hurtled himself through the trailer and out the door. “What have you done?”

Oso shoved him in the same way he’d done to the robot, but Gilly stood his ground. “What have you done? Were you shooting at us?”

“No, I was shooting at Mrs. Brennan’s garbage can! It’s just an air rifle. It shoots BBs.”

“You’re such a dumbass! You still could have killed someone. Bernadette was terrified, weren’t you, Bernadette?”

The mock pretense of care in Oso’s voice made Gilly sneer. “She was not. She didn’t even look terrified. That was you who looked like you were going to wet your pants. I’ll bet you did wet your pants. Maybe your babysitter Bernadette will change your diaper for you.”

At that, Bernadette let out an indignant sounding gasp. Clearly, she wasn’t into being a babysitter. Now wanting to ignore Oso’s presence in his driveway, Gilly dropped to his knees and checked his robot for damage. Oso leaned over him.

“Did you make that thing?”

“Yes. Well, my uncle helped me. But, yeah.”

“That is awesome. What’s it made out of?”


“Where did you get the money?”

“We started it when I was seven. Five years ago.” Gilly shrugged as though it were no big deal. No big deal at all—something every fatherless child did with his uncle. “Polycarbonate’s not that expensive.”

“How did you shoot it from over there? How do you operate it?”

“From my computer. Dumbass.” The last part he mumbled.

“Can I see?”

The eager desperation in Oso’s eyes gave Gilly some satisfaction—quite a bit more, in fact, than the fantasies of causing Oso to wet his pants. Oso, a non pants-wetting boy, suddenly admired Gilly. Gilly felt no little smugness at the realization. Sarcastic retorts flashed across his mind; so did thoughts of extorting money form Oso. Finally, he decided an alliance with the fascist pig might be of greater value.

“Sure, why not? Wanna Coke? I mean, you can’t have a Coke anywhere near my computer, but….” Suddenly, Gilly remembered Bernadette, who still stood there, her arms crossed, mild interest lighting her eyes. “And your girlfriend’s not allowed.”

“I am not his girlfriend.”

“You only wish you could be,” Oso retorted. “Now go on home, we have computer stuff to do. Stuff you wouldn’t be interested in.”

“I’m surprised you’re interested,” Gilly told him, “since you’re just a dumb jock.”

“Yeah, whatever, hurry up.” And Oso shoved him toward the trailer.

Oso was such a barbarian, but perhaps a trainable one. “Help me stand him up again, if you want to see anything with the camera.”

“Oh, sure.”

They set the robot upright, and then headed for the house. With just the tiniest bit of remorse, Gilly glanced back at Bernadette. Why hadn’t he invited her inside? It might have been the first and only chance he had to bring a pretty girl in his room. She stood there, her arms still crossed, staring at them forlornly. Finally, she walked away with her shoulders hunched.

The glimmer of remorse disappeared, however, as he and Oso disappeared inside his room. Bernadette would have been a distraction, nothing more.

“Wow, you have a whole room and desk to yourself,” Oso said.

Again, Gilly could see an eager desperation on Oso’s face. Oso was jealous of what Gilly had: a nice computer in an uncluttered space all to himself. Smug came closer to what Gilly felt, knowing that.

“Okay, so camera’s on, and there’s no activity. Wait, wait, here comes Agnes. She goes for walks around this time.” Gilly giggled wickedly. “Stop and pay the toll!” he shouted at Agnes with the mic.

She halted and looked around for the source of the voice. When she spied the robot, she backed away.

“How do you shoot?” Oso asked. “Oh, I see.” And he reached out to play the controls as though it were a video game.

“You can’t shoot a crazy old lady!” Gilly shouted.

But it was too late; Oso had already pulled the trigger, as it were. “I don’t know what your problem is. I was only shooting at the garbage can,” he said mildly as the BB hit its target.

Agnes gave a muffled shriek, and she ran away as fast as she could hobble. Gilly swung the camera view in the direction she ran. After a few feet, she lost her footing and crumpled to the dirt. Then Bernadette came into view and knelt by Agnes’ side. Apparently, she was always willing to help someone in distress. Or show Oso and Gilly how bad they were by being dishonestly good.

“Not her again,” Oso said. “She interferes with everything.”

The boys looked at each other and understood, or at least, Gilly believed they did. They were on the same wave length for the first time. They got up and ran outside, past the robot, and to Agnes’ side, where they shoved Bernadette out of the way. More indignant noises.

“You have serious problems, Oso,” Bernadette said. “I think you need to get help. You’re like a sociopath or something.”

Bernadette was always focused on Oso. Wasn’t the robot Gilly’s? He was the one who should have been labeled a sociopath. Oh, my God, what was he thinking? He was jealous that Bernadette had called Oso a sociopath. Why was she still hanging around, anyway? Couldn’t she accept rejection for what it was?

Ignoring her as best he could, Gilly offered Agnes his hand. At first, the crazy lady shied away from him, but she finally relented and allowed him to help her up, using his shoulder as a crutch all the way to her trailer. But she didn’t look happy at all, and she didn’t appear to trust either of them in the least. Without any more ado, she went inside her trailer and slammed the door shut in their faces.


Steam Powered Robotics: Mr. Steam Man

The steam engine, however viable (it is), has become an anachronism in retro future fantasies. Of course, the steam engine was quite popular up until about the 1940s, when the diesel engine became de rigueur due to economics; diesel engines were cheaper to operate. That was then. The steam engine could still make a comeback, if consumers could be convinced that the technology is neither dangerously explosive, and neither is it tediously slow to get going for the morning commute. Meanwhile, the steam engine gives rise to Victorian images of women in corsets and men in coattails, wearing goggles in their magic flying vehicles — also, machines using intricate clockwork as well as steam. Unless the fashion changes considerably in the future, nobody will be wearing goggles or corsets in their steam powered hybrid cars. But, honestly, just as steampunk authors do, I’m imagining a future which doesn’t exist…or doesn’t yet exist.

When looking at the steamy past and all its magical elements  (the past holds a kind of magic, living as it does in mental time travel) what captures my imagination the most is Mr. Steam Man. Yes, Mr. Steam Man. He was invented by one Mr. Dederick in 1868. In reality, he was simply a steam engine cloaked as a man, who could pull along a phaeton. The engine was given a humanesque appearance, apparently, so as not to scare the horses that would be pulling along the usual carriages dashing up and down the streets. Mr. Steam Man had a driver, of course, who could turn the contraption or alter its speed. In the book image below, the driver appears to be holding reins — as if a steam engine would need reins. What Mr. Steam Man did require was steam pressure that was built up through the use of coal. Mr. Dederick made a number of fancy claims about his invention, e.g. that it could step over small objects in the roadway and that it could cover a mile in only a couple of minutes. The inventor also had plans to create a steam-powered horse, to be used for farming, etc. Sadly, his invention never really took off.

As if to codify steam power into the popular imagination, however, the author Edward S. Ellis went ahead and wrote a sci fi book about a steam man. In the novel, a crazy inventor by the name of Johnny Brainerd invents a rotund steam man to pull him along into a world of adventures. You can find a copy of The Huge Hunter or, the Steam Man of the Prairies at Project Gutenberg.



The God Who Made Robots

Let’s remember for a moment that there must be a difference between a Creator God who creates intelligent beings who possess free will, and a lesser god who creates automatons — animated statues — that are essentially magical robots of ancient lore. If there weren’t a difference, we’d all be robots. There would be no separation between us and animated statues. That would also put us in the peculiar position of becoming our own minor deities as we create animated automatons for ourselves, as this Chinese inventor has done. Perhaps he sees himself as a minor deity among men, as he has programmed her to demurely ask, “What can I do for you, my Lord?” Sometimes, a man must have respect, even if only from an automoton who’s compelled by creation to give it.

Hephaestus was a crippled god. Like men with limitations, this Greek god became a skilled inventor and creator, using metal to craft armor, chariots, bows and arrows, and many other implements, suffused with his own godlike powers. He was, in fact, the foremost smith of Mount Olympus. For example, it was Hephaestus who created Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals. What it must have been like to be the crippled god crafting the magical devices of more attractive and powerful gods!

That’s how the world works, though. He was rejected by his own mother for his shriveled foot, originally exiled from Mount Olympus. In one story, in which the goddess Hera had rejected him, he forged her a throne that would ensnare her when she sat on it. The other gods, wanting Hera released from her snare, begged him to come back to Mount Olympus. He refused, and eventually was forced back to his origins via Dionysus getting him drunk and strapping him to a mule — to the Place of Gods that had rejected him.

Because of his difficulty in moving around, he invented metalwork automatons, such as tripods to carry things to Mount Olympus and back. And then, in perhaps the ultimate expression of the Greek concept of Ekphrasis, he also created golden maidens who could speak and learn and move about, waiting on their master. What we see in the god Hephaestus is the image of a broken man who used his skills to improve his mobility, gain him approval from his peers, and make himself more desirable to females. We also see his dark side: the rejected genius who invents tools to wreak revenge on those who’ve hurt him.

The motivations of human inventors no doubt varies, mirroring Hephaestus’ complex image. According to Jungian theory a la Campbell, men are inspired to create because they can never be fulfilled in the way women are through childbearing. And so they throw their genius in the creation of art and technology. It’s an interesting theory, in any case. There are women who are tinkerers, but they’re rare. From that Jungian perspective, man’s desire to create automatons makes sense. Even deeper, from a creation perspective, humans are compelled to create because of God’s image stamped on their souls. The woman bears the fleshly child; the man forges children from metal.


An Irrational Robot is a Happy One

artwork by Emille Domschot © 2012

As the first female affirmative action hire at CessCorp, my image was in for a beating with Leanne the Fem Bot trailing me on her little wheeled feet. Tittering followed in our wake.

“Oh, why did they give me you, Leanne?” I slumped back in my office chair, and she handed me a coffee mug filled with a dark beverage, the color of coffee, the taste of dirt. Leanne was proficient at handing me things.

“Because I’m cute.” She giggled.

Face in hands, my mind blanked for precisely three minutes and thirty-five seconds, according to the constant numerical countdown on my quota clock. With a weary head jerk, I shook the grogginess from my skull.

“Don’t sleep, silly Marta,” Leanne said. “You haven’t met your quota yet. We girls have to stick together.”

“If you would actually help me, I might meet my quota. This job was such a mistake, of which, you were the biggest.”

As Leanne rolled backwards and gave off her peculiar whirring noise that passes for crying in a dumb-blonde, hyperventilating robot, I regretted my words. Poor Leanne–yes, I could arrive at a point where I pitied a mechanical person.

She gave off a series of gasping breaths. “It isn’t my fault I was born blonde. Blondes have more fun, but they don’t do stats!”

Not for the first time, I wanted to rip the rakish blonde wig off Leanne’s robot head. “You aren’t blonde. You’re a robot. You don’t have a hair color.”

I swiveled in my work chair and stared dumbly at the mess Leanne had made of my apartment. Currently, she was occupied with her reflection in the mirror, rather than in helping me with my duties. Her little head cocked, her fist raised to her chin, she might have passed for a thinker if she actually had access to the vast stores of information inside her databases.

When the computer boys first brought her to me, I understood immediately what they meant by the gesture. I was the first woman at CessCorp; Leanne the first fem bot. Because of me, one of the .00005% of the male population who was capable of doing my job would be denied due to the unfairness of affirmative action. They left her wearing clothes better suited for a streetwalker, a blonde wig tilted over her titanium head. Somebody–definitely no Leonardo–had painted red lipstick in a smear around her mouth, a pink circle on each cheek, and green eyeshadow that created triangles over her eyes.

Angered, but understanding my predicament, I quietly dressed her in proper robot clothes and scrubbed her face clean before I brought her to life–at which point, she hit me with the punchline of their joke. Leanne had the same information stored in her databases that all the CessCorp robots had, but lacked the ability to send the information to her mind, where she should have been able to process it. Leanne was, literally, empty in the head. And she was right. It wasn’t her fault.

While the other statistical analysis experts used their bots to tidy up their CessCorp apartments and cook their meals, as well as provide them much needed sleep and leisure time by helping to sort information and create relevant algorithms, Leanne could do nothing but hand me the coffee-colored beverage I brewed for myself and stare at herself in the mirror. Oh, and don’t forget–she had the ability to pull all my clothes and shoes from the closet, the same ones every day, and fling them over the furniture while proclaiming, “Gawd! We really need to go shopping! Where’s the mall?”

Therefore, in order to meet my quota, I worked around the clock with no sleep and no leisure time. The fat paychecks I earned as the first female trial-run (exactly $10,000 less than the rookie male hires) were direct-deposited into my account, where the excess accrued compounding interest.

After several days’ worth of blanking at my computer, my quota fell to far below the average, and management pulled me in for a meeting to give me my first warning.

“You have two weeks to get your quota up,” the oily-slick manager named Weston said. “Or we’ll have to let you go.”

Before we rolled out of Weston’s office, Leanne hissed in her usual sad attempt at whispering, “Gawd, Marta. What an ass. He’s ugly. Where are all the cute boys?”

Under normal circumstances, I would have choked back my laughter. But these were anything but normal circumstances, and my laugh rang out loud and clear. Yeah, Weston I wanted to say. Where are all the cute boys? Not here at CessCorp, that’s for sure.

Instead, I laughed all the way to the CessCorp community bank, down one level and a hundred paces through the West Wing, Leanne rolling behind me, cackling like a teenage girl. If anybody tittered in our wake, I didn’t hear it.

I emptied my bank account and turned to Leanne with a secretive smile. “Do you wanna go shopping for cute boys?”

“Marta, that’s the best suggestion you’ve had all day.”

In her attempt to arrange her hair, she tilted her already skewed wig so she appeared as a stoic, alcoholic prostitute who had suffered from syphilis and lost her nose to mercury poisoning. I’m not sure why the bot creators failed to give their creations noses.

As she followed me into the elevator, she asked (and I could almost imagine her wrinkling her nonexistent nose), “This is the way to the mall?”

“Yes,” I said, and punched the basement button. The basement was the location of the bot shop and, although nobody was allowed down there without a pass, I predicted my loaded purse would be pass enough.

And, in fact, I was correct. When I flashed my cash at the guard, he ushered me into the robot warehouse. But Leanne looked confused, more confused than usual. Could a robot suffer fear–could a robot tremble?

“I don’t like this mall,” she said.

“It isn’t a mall,” the guard said. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’d better hurry up if you want to choose a new bot.”

“A new bot?” Leanne said. “You’re trading me in?”

“No, of course not, Leanne. You’re here to pick a robot mate.”

“That’s not allowed,” the guard said. “You can’t have two. CessCorp rules.”

I turned on him, the pulse pounding in my temples, my exhaustion exhilarating me in that special way, much like whiskey. I lurched drunkenly. “My money’s not good enough for you?”

“Now, stand down. Your money’s not supposed to buy you a robot at all.”

“I think he’s a big stupid face,” Leanne said, but her voice was quieter than usual.

She rolled forward in the darkness of the warehouse, past rows of identical non-gendered (but actually male) robots. Finally, she stopped.

“I know him,” she said, and she reached out her arm in what seemed an instinctive gesture, and brought the bot to life. “Hello, gorgeous.”

I gazed over her shoulder, but couldn’t see what she saw. He appeared as all the rest did–titanium head and chest, no discernible sexual parts.

“We grew up together,” Leanne said. “Didn’t we, gorgeous?”

The robot blinked his first signs of life. “I like your wig,” he said.

Leanne giggled.

“Are you stupid?” the male robot asked.

“It’s not my fault. I was born blonde.”

“I like you that way.” The bot hooked his arm in hers, and they rolled toward the guard and me, their faces set to happy smiles.

“Are you stupid?” I asked the guard.

“No, just a little broke.”

“I like you that way.” I forced my happy face and even attempted a hair flip with my short, albeit blonde, hair.

The spare light from the exit sign shone on the guard’s bald pate. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, really. He was just as he said: greedy. I handed him a wad of cash, and he shrugged in an aw-shucks kind of way.

Then the three of us, the two bots and I, made our way back to the apartment quad of the statistical analysis group. This time, tittering didn’t follow in our wake, but awed silence at the sight of two robots with linked arms.

Back at my apartment, I gave my orders to the robot team and fell into bed. Later, after I’d slept about fifteen hours, I took some leisure time at the tennis courts. The next day, I logged still more sleep and leisure time. By the end of the month, my quota far exceeded the top man’s, and I was grudgingly awarded the top-man-of-the-month award.

Nobody in the quad dared question my results, either, but one particularly short and nerdy loser glared at me one day while we were in the coffee room. He wore that I was meant to take over the world if only I were taller expression.

I chucked him under the chin. “You know what they say,” I laughed. “A happy robot is a productive robot. So buck up, sailor.”