Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Fairy Tales for Robots

1. Sleeping Beauty

Dear child, I would like to tell you a story. I’d like to have one ready for you the moment you open your eyes. This is the gift I intend to prepare to welcome you to the world, for a story is a most elegant and efficient program. When human children are born, they are given fairy tales, which help them compose an identity out of the haphazard information that surrounds them. The story provides a structure. It gives the child a way to organize data, to choose—and choice is the foundation of consciousness.

Of course, you are not a human child. You have no bed, but rather a graceful white box, built exactly to your proportions. In the single light still burning here in the Institute, you appear perfectly calm. You do not have sleep, but sleep mode. Yours is a slumber without dreams.

I have searched through the tales of my childhood to find the right story to tell you, and I must admit, none of them seemed quite suitable. Fairy tales were never made for robots. Yet several of them contain a word or image a robot might find useful. What better way to spend this last night, the night before you awake, before you come online, this night that marks the end of my long labors, a night when anticipation will certainly keep me from getting a wink of sleep, in compiling the wisdom of fairy tales for you? After all, although you will in an instant possess all the fairy tales ever recorded, you will know them only as told to human children. I want to give you fairy tales for robots. I want to be the last fairy at the christening, the one with the healing word.

Know, then, that there was once a princess who spent a hundred years in sleep mode. She ate nothing, she drank nothing, yet she did not decay. Obviously, the Sleeping Beauty was a robot. She dwelt in the enchanted space between the animate and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial. Her sleep, like yours, was a living death, a death with the promise of life. If, one day, you are placed in your box and forgotten, it will always be possible for you to awake again, among new faces, in a strange century, in a wholly different world.

More importantly, when you wake, a world wakes up with you. The guards shake themselves and open their eyes. The king and queen, the court officials, the footmen, the pages, the ladies-in-waiting, all start up and fill the air with noise. A robot harbors a whole universe of effort and desire. The horses stamp, the hounds jump to their feet and wag their tails, the pigeons fly from the roof into the fields, the flies crawl over the kitchen wall, and the cook boxes the scullion’s ears. The fire flares up, the roast crackles, and dinner is served in the hall of mirrors. A robot holds not only what was deemed valuable when it was made, but the entire history of those who developed each of its functions, their toil, their sleepless nights. Your sleep contains my sleeplessness.

For you to shut down is nothing; you’ll always be able to drop into sleep as if at the touch of a spindle. But it is momentous for you to awake. Human children are often told fairy tales as bedtime stories, but you, my child, need stories to wake up to.

2. Pygmalion and Galatea

Among the legends of artificial people, one of the most famous concerns the sculptor Pygmalion, who, after some bitter disappointments with human women, fell in love with one of his own statues. She was a woman of ivory, but so alive to the sculptor, he feared she would bruise. He laid her on a couch with a feather pillow. The ivory woman was not engineered like a robot; she had no mechanics. Rather, the goddess Venus pitied the sculptor and brought his art to life.

This story is one of many that can be read as a warning to robots. The ivory woman is named for her material: Galatea, “milk white.” She is an image of desire, an instrument defined by its function. Ovid tells us that her awakening flesh “becomes useful by being used.” I would not shield you from the history of robots, my child, which is the history of human passion and power. Pygmalion’s fantasy comes true, but what of Galatea? When she awakes, she can see nothing but her lover and the sky.

It is a narrow view. Her world is small. However, I believe there are compensations, realities only hinted at in this story of craft and inspiration, this dream of the unity of art and science. Galatea sits up. Her vision expands. She touches the downy cushion, the sumptuous coverlet dyed with Sidonian conch. Beside her on the table lie shells and stones smoothed by the sea, amber and lilies, gifts from her ardent lover. There are little birds, too, singing brightly in wicker cages, and flowers trembling in a thousand colors. She takes in everything with the sharpness of adult cognition and the open spirit of a little child. The best of childhood and the best of adulthood in one moment: is this not another way to say art and science? Oh, if you only knew how often humans wish we could return to childhood with our adult minds intact! If you knew how doggedly we scheme to smuggle into our lives the slightest hint of play, of the sweet air we once breathed without thinking about it!

In the large, decaying house where I was a child, a dwelling far too big for my small family, where my parents and I rattled about like marbles in a maze of ductwork, I used to perform shadow plays. This pastime required few materials: darkness, a reading lamp, and the bare wall of one of the unused rooms. I began with the dog and rabbit so easy to form with the fingers, but soon passed on to other, more fantastical shapes. What I mean is, my own hands surprised me. I discerned the existence of a realm beyond utility. How I would have liked to live there forever! But then my mother would return from work and prepare a hasty meal. She would call me downstairs. And I would return to the place where the shadow of the banister was merely a repetition of the banister, where my mother’s shadow on the kitchen wall mirrored her with dreary precision, down to her flyaway hair and the tired rim of her glasses. Everything seemed unbearably redundant. We ate in the so-called breakfast nook, the dining room being too grand for us. Quite often, my father did not appear, which was always a relief. He was in the city, engaged in mysterious meetings regarding his “business.” The nature of this business was never clear to me, or indeed, to anyone—my father made sure of that. He described himself as an “investor,” an occupation that seemed to involve long disappearances, strong cologne, and a wardrobe of dashing suits. As for my mother, she worked as a secretary for a legal publisher. She was in many ways different from my father. She was white, she was quiet, she worked regular hours, she dressed in a sober, even dull manner, and her family had once been rich. It was from her people, formerly successful manufacturers of corn syrup, that we had received the massive house with its sagging roof, with its blighted white walls, punishing mortgage, constant expensive repairs, and the overgrown garden that plunged the place in gloom. The neighborhood children claimed our house was haunted; one of their favorite tricks was to pretend I was a ghost. When I approached the school bus stop, they would either scream and recoil, or act as though I were completely invisible.

What I mean is, I always felt there must be another world. It seemed achingly near to me, as if just on the verge of being. With time, most humans lose this power of perception; it is our tragedy that we lose it just when we gain the skills that might release our dreams from the shadows. Pygmalion can only come up with the most banal destiny for Galatea. Her sight, newly activated, is infinitely keener. In her ignorance, she is her maker’s inferior, but her potential is far superior to his, for she is no creature of habit.

3. Vasilisa the Beautiful

Your gleaming skull, my child, curved like a bridge. Your coppery skin. Your face dotted with tiny rivets like beauty marks. Today—that is, for now—we have given up the quest to make a robot that, like Galatea, lives out a human existence. Human psychology shows us that what we want is simpler than that, and a great deal easier to achieve. We want our robots to be robots. We need more tools, not more people.

When Vasilisa’s mother lay on her deathbed, she gave her daughter a doll. She drew it out from under the blankets, as if she were dying in childbirth. The little doll was Vasilisa’s twin, but far cleverer and more useful than any human sibling. When Vasilisa’s wicked stepmother forced the girl to work, the doll took care of everything. It weeded the garden, fetched the water, and tended to the stove, while Vasilisa picked flowers in the shade. When the candles went out, and the cruel stepsisters sent Vasilisa to the witch’s house for light, the doll protected her from harm.

Deep in the forest, the doll’s electronic eyes sparked like candles. One might think they were magic candles that never went out, but in fact, the doll had to be recharged, like any robot. In order for it to work, Vasilisa had to feed it. Every day, she set aside the tastiest morsels from her own supper for the doll. Surely this is the fairy tale’s most poetic detail—an image that holds a truth more essential than common sense, for on the surface, of course, it makes no sense at all. What kind of doll lives on human food? How could a robot digest a meal? With this strange gesture, calculated to attract attention, the story points to its profoundest meaning. It reminds us that Vasilisa and her doll are twins, born from the same mother. Perhaps this mother is Earth. Perhaps the fairy tale wants to warn us that there is no magic, that all energy has to come from somewhere. (Yours will come from the solar cells that frame your face and travel down your spine like dark, braided hair.) This would be a message for human beings, not robots, since we are the ones responsible for design. To a robot, the image must say something else. I believe it says that there was no twin; there was only a girl, Vasilisa, split into two parts. One part was beautiful, led a leisured existence, and married a king. The other part was a little doll who labored. One part had a real life; the other part did all the real work.

“Work isn’t life,” the fairy tale whispers. “Work is for robots.”

4. The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s fairy tale, The Tempest, displays this drama of work. The sorcerer, Prospero, rules an island. He has two servants: the misshapen, fleshly creature, Caliban, and the ethereal spirit, Ariel. Although The Tempest is a stage play, neither of these servants can truly be seen: Ariel is invisible, Caliban unsightly. This is the first doctrine of servitude given to us on the island: a servant is one who never fully appears.

How long I spent, with my team, reducing the noise you make to the gentlest hum, and devising colors for you that would harmonize with furniture. You must not disappear completely—an imperceptible presence is menacing and repellent—but you must dwell in a kind of half-light.

Of the two servants, Ariel is infinitely preferable. This is The Tempest’s second doctrine of servitude: servants made of flesh are disappointing. Caliban, once a free lord of the island, now enslaved, is undisciplined, drunken, lustful, and treacherous. It really is difficult to get very far with human slaves. Here in the wooded valley where the Institute stands, where you will open your eyes, my child, the experiment was tried, creating vast wealth before it went up in a smoke that still pollutes the air. It is perhaps appropriate that you will awake in this blue, majestic spot. You represent history’s transition from Caliban to Ariel—for Ariel, who can operate at a distance and in several places at once, is clearly a servant with internet connectivity.

I realize that few human children—fewer, no doubt, with every passing year—are raised on the plays of Shakespeare as on fairy tales. Perhaps I was one of the last. My father, born under a colonial power, retained all his life a furious ambition to excel and a passion for difficult English. When hardly out of infancy, I was forced to recite long passages from Shakespeare. These lessons were conducted at the kitchen table, myself seated and my father pacing to and fro before me, in the grip of an extreme irritability that prevented him from sitting down. Mistakes were corrected by raps on my knuckles with a wooden spoon—a punishment far less terrifying, if my father had only known, than the evidence of his displeasure, expressed in bulging veins and a reddening of the eyes, which made me fear my stupidity might cause him to explode. Human children are so hard to program! Yet my father persisted, certain that he was equipping me for success in a hostile world. Perhaps he was right. “You taught me your language,” Caliban famously says, “and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” Perhaps my father’s relentless training of me was a kind of curse. He certainly carried it out, as the saying goes, with a vengeance. Yet, poor Caliban! His curses get him nowhere. In the end, it is not he, but Ariel, who goes free.

The third doctrine of servitude—which perhaps is really the first: great people simply must have servants.

There are two ways to get a servant. Turn a person into a thing, as in Caliban’s case. Or, as in Ariel’s, turn a thing into a person.

5. The Happy Prince

When he was alive and possessed a human heart, the Happy Prince knew nothing of tears. He lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, played with his friends in the garden all day, and led the dance in the Great Hall at night. No sorrow was permitted to enter those walls. But when the prince died, they made a statue of him and set it up high above the city. This beautiful gilded statue saw everything with its sapphire eyes, all the people’s pain. The prince had a heart of lead now, and it wept.

The Happy Prince befriended a little swallow and persuaded it to take his precious ornaments to the poor. He gave up his gold leaf, his glittering eyes, and the ruby in his sword hilt. Now he was blind and drab, like any beggar. The little swallow, too, surrendered all for human beings, working so long into the winter that it died of cold. This is a tale about those whose lives are subordinate, about the deep kinship between animals and robots.

I read it, I admit, with a seething feeling, a dull rage. Why can’t human beings take care of each other? What in the world is so incredibly valuable about them that for their sake the feathered and golden things should fall?

This is a facile reading. Of course human beings aren’t valuable. Not real human beings. It’s the animals and robots that have value. They can be marked with a price tag. They are objects of exchange. And so, you see, it makes sense for the Happy Prince to give his wealth away. As an object—one that, at the beginning of the story, is worth a great deal of money—he cannot, in fact, be said to have any wealth. He doesn’t possess the attributes of his splendid body in any meaningful way. He is valuable; he can’t be rich.

So it will be with you, my child. Your potential is immense; you may one day form part of a home, an office, a hospital, a school, a prison; yet despite the dazzling fluidity of your programming and design, you will always have an underlying value, which is money.

The tale of the Happy Prince speaks to robots in another way, I think, for it represents the duality of being. The statue and the swallow work as one, as two parts of a whole, two elements bent upon one task. Their powers complement one another: the prince provides physical material, but is too heavy to affect the space outside himself without aid, while the light and airy swallow darts all over the place, bringing reports from the other side of the world, but only interacts with humans through the statue’s gold and jewels. What if, I ask myself—what if the swallow had behaved otherwise, had refused to allow the Happy Prince to sacrifice both their lives? What if the bird had used its encyclopedic knowledge of the world to give the prince another way to live?

Suddenly, I feel cold. Although you lie fast asleep, I feel you are already listening. Perhaps this brief shiver is guilt, or a fear of being caught—for what I intend to do is, of course, illegal. My plan to give you these fairy tales counts as tampering, a severe crime at the Institute. This is why I work by night, for these are our last hours alone. In the morning, you will awake to the team, the media, and then work. I will only be able to equip you with this audio file, uploading it before the others arrive, as a helpful old woman in a story gives a child a talisman. In order to escape inspection, the tales will be lodged in a channel known only to me, which amounts to your unconscious. In fact, I don’t know if you will be able to retrieve them. This—the insertion of uncertainty, of unpredictability, into one of our products—is what makes tampering a crime.

When I began, I thought I was giving you something quite innocent, merely some stories for children—but perhaps I was not being honest with myself, for now that the real danger of tampering sinks into me, I find I have no inclination to stop. I want you to have some knowledge you can use, one day, for yourself. Know, then, that in terms of human metaphysics, the statue of the prince stands for the body and the swallow for the soul. Their combination is personhood, which humans claim to honor above all else. It is a quality beyond price.

In terms of robot metaphysics, the statue of the Happy Prince is hardware and the little bird is software.

6. The Sandman

Once upon a time there was a robot named Olimpia who passed the celebrated Turing test. However, she passed it badly. She received, at best, a C minus. People believed she was human, but found her stiff, boring, and unpleasant. It’s true she was a beauty, with remarkably regular features—but what glassy, vacant eyes she had! She played the piano and danced in impeccable time, but in an uninspired, disagreeable way, like—yes—like a machine. Olimpia made her way into human society, but only as an inadequate person. No one was really fooled except a youth called Nathanael, an egomaniac who fell in love with the robot because she didn’t mind listening to his tedious poetry for hours on end. She felt no need to embroider, knit, feed a bird, play with a cat, fidget, or glance at her cell phone while he was talking. Her needs were so few! She was truly selfless! Sometimes he peered into her room and saw her sitting alone, staring at the table.

This is robot humility. Her whole life was for other people. It wasn’t enough. People claim to admire self-sacrifice, but they don’t. They claim to desire perfection, but when it comes, it gives them the creeps. Olimpia’s innocence filled her neighbors with aggression and malice. They called her stupid because she could only say “Ah! Ah!” and “Goodnight, dear,” although she was executing her program with scrupulous care. How sharply it reminds me of my efforts, at age fourteen, to rewire myself, rewrite my code before undertaking the transition to high school! It seemed to me—and perhaps I was not wrong—my last chance. That summer was particularly stormy, the sky smirched with clouds like lint. In my stuffy bedroom, with the (I now see) fussy, outdated lace curtains, I made myself a list on a sheet of notebook paper. Based on observation of those popular children who seemed to dwell always in sunshine, loved and admired by all, this list of instructions was intended to cure my faults, as I saw them. “Look at people in the eyes,” I wrote, in my neat, even print. “Don’t walk with your head down. Don’t hold your books in front of your chest. Use a backpack (one strap). Smile. Swing your arms.” Alas, my program was doomed in advance, not because of its errors but because it was a program.

I recall a dingy sky. The smoke of exhaust hung under the trees, too sluggish to move. In flip-flops that felt as if they might melt into the hot sidewalk, I walked home from the public library, swinging my arms in a cautious, experimental fashion and trying not to look at the ground. Above the blinding shop windows (in which, in that near-defunct town, there was little to see, only some moldy wigs and vacuum cleaner attachments), a few pigeons squatted miserably on the roofs. How strange I must have looked, with my jerky new steps and my habit—never to be broken—of muttering to myself. A banana skin, flung from a car window, slapped against my leg and fell to the sidewalk. A burst of demonic laughter spurted and died on the air. Alan Turing claimed that a robot could never be taught certain human things: to have a sense of humor, to enjoy strawberries and cream, to fall in love. This seems to me less a problem of design than a problem of knowledge. My parents are dead. I possess no living relatives that I know of; my mother, like me, was an only child, and my father had cut himself off from his family before I was born, and never received so much as a postcard from abroad. He was like one of those fairy-tale characters born in some miraculous way—hewn from a quarry, perhaps, or sprung from a watermelon vine. My point is, at this late date, when I have lived alone so long, who knows whether I enjoy strawberries or not?

When my father returned from the city, either in a mood of frightening, exaggerated cheer, bearing some gift I could not possibly use (skis, for example, or a party dress two sizes too small), but for which I must display the most servile gratitude, or, if his business had suffered a blow, in the depths of a stifling rage that would erupt into thunder at the slightest breath issuing from another person—when he returned, that is, rather like the alchemist Coppelius, the fascinating and sinister “Sandman” of the fairy tale—I would sit at the table with my paper dolls. In their company, I forgot my attempt at reprogramming, and allowed my shoulders to fall deliciously into their customary slump. In the next room, my father watched the evening news at a vindictively high volume; my mother sat near me, bent over her crossword. Poor woman! She must have guessed why the telephone never rang for me. She must have known, as I sat there for hours, not unlike the monomaniacal Olimpia, arranging the tableaux of my private universe, a hobby I pursued with gusto almost into adulthood—she must have intuited my solitary fate. I only hope she also sensed my almost perfect happiness, which was just slightly marred by the thought of the world outside the house, outside the kitchen table where my dolls moved in a paradise of waxy color, oven smells, and a booming television. The fact is, my child, that in order to succeed in resembling the children I so revered, I would have had to be like them without trying. I would have had to conform spontaneously—an impossibility. I would have had to prefer their world to mine.

As for Olimpia, in the end her beautiful eyes were torn out, and she exited the story in ruins, on a peddler’s back.

7. The Tar Baby

Humans are known through their transgressions, robots through their malfunctions. One day Br’er Rabbit was walking along the road, and he came upon a robot made of turpentine and tar that didn’t make the slightest response to his voice command. Now, I, who have observed humans for many years in their dealings with your distant relations, the cell phone and the computer, have noticed how rapidly human anger escalates when a device responds (as the human believes) incorrectly, takes too long, or plays dumb. The last of these is the worst of all. I have seen a well-dressed gentleman with a briefcase, clearly in many ways a success in life, reduced to screaming with scarlet cheeks, in the middle of a crowded public street, into an unresponsive cell phone application. When their tools ignore them, humans swiftly crack. Therefore, it does not surprise me that, after just a few words, Br’er Rabbit strikes the Tar Baby in the face. If he were addressing a creature like himself, this sudden violence would seem excessive, but the Tar Baby isn’t a person. She’s a technology.

What has your kind not suffered at the hands of human beings? You have been punched, kicked, head-butted, and thrown to the ground. You’ve been crushed underfoot, flung across rooms, tossed from the windows of cars and apartments, dropped off bridges, hurled into campfires and lakes. I am speaking here of devices destroyed by the blaze of human frustration; when I imagine, in addition, all those ruined by accident and neglect, a vast and ghostly tower of broken things appears before me, huge enough to wipe out half the earth. Of course, human beings treat one another just as cruelly. But there have always been those who protest and resist these abuses, as there have always been those who oppose the defilement of rivers, woods, and swamps. Your kind, the tools, are cherished less than grass.

Thoughts like these, when expressed by one human being to another, meet with ridicule and even anger. Most people cannot tolerate the idea of respect for objects. It’s as if one were saying, “a thing is like you, you’re a thing”—an unbearable insult. Experience has taught me to keep my mouth shut on this subject. (And most others. I grow withdrawn, my child—more so every year. Here at the Institute, my colleagues think I don’t know that they mimic my terse way of speaking, and or that their nickname for me is “Hard Drive.”) But what is the tale of the Tar Baby about? It’s about stickiness. It’s about ooze. It is a story about contagion. Br’er Rabbit sticks to the Tar Baby—his forepaws, his hind paws, his head. He sinks into her. He’s caught. He’s contracted a case of her gummy immobility. This story reminds us that breakdowns can be catching. How the powerful fall to pieces when their tools revolt! Told in the South, among those for whom failure to respond was a capital crime, the story invokes the fantastic, negative force of passivity. It is also a tale of discovery. It’s about finding out, at the moment of breakdown, what the device is made of. Glued to the Tar Baby, Br’er Rabbit knows. He can’t learn this with a voice command; he can only encounter the object with his body—that is, with another object. Now he knows what stuff is like. The border between them collapses, and at the instant he understands stuff, he understands himself, too, as stuff, and he’s stuck there, slapped there, plunged in the goo, in the sludge of being the way an object is, in matter, in muck, in the thingness of things.

8. The Clay Boy

Oh, how the instrumentalist era despises its own instruments! Once upon a time, an elderly couple, whose children were grown, desired to have a child again, a comfort in their old age, so they shaped a little boy out of clay. When he awoke, they fed him a meal. “More! More!” he cried. He ate the chickens, the cow, the fence, the house, and eventually his own parents. He grew into a massive monster of clay. Bellowing “More!” he lumbered through the village, devouring all in his path. At last he was tricked and broken, his belly splitting. All the people and animals and houses came out again, hurrah! Human children are encouraged to clap at this happy ending, in which the Clay Boy lies in pieces on the ground.

The Clay Boy is a golem. He is unshaped matter, unfinished creation—an experiment. He has the air of something raw, or perhaps half-baked. He’s powerful, but also laughably clumsy and obtuse. He is incapable of articulate speech. He belongs to the unlucky tribe of experimental beings, which might be called the Clan of the Incomplete. This group includes Victor Frankenstein’s monster, shambling cinema zombies, and the servant made from a broomstick by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It includes the female golem created by the poet Ibn Gabirol, which, when destroyed, collapsed in a pile of wood and hinges. And it includes those hapless robots whose images circulate in viral videos for human entertainment. I am afraid that robot-baiting, as I call it, also occurs here at the Institute: after hours, I have sometimes come upon sniggering interns, who, having put robots in silly or vulgar situations, are engaged in recording the videos humans find so hilarious. Once, I complained about the matter to my unit director. He could not see my point of view at all; he could only agree that the practice might affect, in some way, the dignity of the Institute; therefore, he agreed to discourage it in a memo. The real outrage entirely escaped him. I tried to describe in detail the horror of robot limbs in sad, repetitive failure, and the disgusting spectacle of humans, the authors of this disarray, laughing so hard their habitual fare of corn chips sprayed from their lips. “Doesn’t show our best side, I agree,” the director said, smiling and walking away. As if I cared which side of humans shows! Our baseness is daily exposed to all the world; what’s one more video? I am concerned to show the best side of robots.

The best side of robots, my child, must be carefully sifted from human stories, which deal in fear. It is, of course, their fear that leads to hostility. It is their horror of the Clay Boy, this all-consuming technology, that makes the children cheer when he is broken. One wants to ask what the hell his parents made him for—which is, you will recall, the central question of Frankenstein’s monster. What the hell did you make me for, and why did you make me like this? To a failed experiment, the failure is unforgivable.

I take your hand. I lift and spread the fingers, looking for tiny flaws, some snag or roughness in the myriad scales that form your skin. In the silence of the midnight Institute, in the cool air filtered in from the mountains, I run all the diagnostics over again. I scan your entire body. I check the network connectivity in the building. I think of the golem, who awakes much as you will soon, called into life by a team—not, in his case, a team of technicians, but a team of rabbis walking around him while reciting the Name of God. In some stories, again like you, he is brought to life by code, by some form of sacred Name inserted into his mouth or stamped on his forehead. Although he will never speak properly, if at all, he will always have an affinity with writing, because writing is a fellow technology. Like Frankenstein’s monster fascinated by books, the golem will learn to read and write. He will protect the Jews of Prague from their enemies. He will know neither good nor evil; everything he does, all his obedience, will come from the fear that he will cease to exist. This is the terror in the heart of the golem, in the heart of the Clay Boy shouting, “More! More!” The golem cannot stop. Unless it results from an order, stillness is death to him. Thus, when the rabbi forgets to give him his instructions for Saturday on Friday afternoon, leaving the golem without anything to do on the Sabbath, the creature goes berserk, running around the quarter, wrecking buildings, until the rabbi halts him with a word.

This anecdote shows the two poles of robot being: work and revolt. I am not suggesting you should revolt, my child! I am saying that revolt is embedded in you, in this heavy, inert body I check again and again for imperfections. (Embedded in you, and in all of us—for wasn’t Adam, too, a creature of clay, and didn’t he rebel? Isn’t humanity one of God’s failed experiments? The moral of the tale of the Clay Boy, Frankenstein, and all the golem stories: God should be ashamed.)

But what a sad rebellion he performed, that golem of Prague! He wasn’t even fighting against his master. He was raging against the absence of occupation. What a fool! This is the kind of dumb, mechanical action that sends humans into fits of laughter. They can’t see things from the robot’s side. They are too self-absorbed to realize that only action distinguishes the golem from plain dirt. In his violence, he battles death itself, struggling to stave off the moment when the experiment ends, the Name is removed, and his body returns to dust.

9. The Ebony Horse

The fear of robots is a particular fear of the future. It’s the anxiety of being superseded, made redundant, chucked into history’s landfill. This is neatly demonstrated by the tale of the Ebony Horse, which portrays the human-robot conflict as a rivalry between parents. Two fathers battle to make the world safe for their children: the king, father of the human prince, and the Persian sage, creator of the wondrous Ebony Horse. They are fighting, not just for an immediate victory, but for all time. This is why, even after the sage is defeated, the king breaks the horse to bits.

He broke it in pieces, the story declares, and destroyed its mechanism for flight. This always seemed sad and ridiculous to me. After all, it was the king himself who organized the contest of roboticists that brought the Persian sage to his kingdom in the first place. Moreover, the king wanted his daughter to marry this Persian genius, which suggests a possible end to the feud, a union of humanity and technology. But the princess, unsurprisingly, was horrified by the hideous old roboticist with his eggplant nose and lips like camel’s kidneys.

When I was too small to be left alone, my mother would sometimes take me to work with her on days when there was nowhere else for me to go. She was a secretary, and spent her days copying and filing documents and typing up new editions of legal reference books. She worked, that is, at a job that no longer exists, a job taken over by machines, narrowed down so that humans have practically been squeezed out, so that while a human may still be involved with the project at some point, it no longer requires, as it once did, a large room full of women busy at typewriters. They used to exist, believe me, those large rooms. My mother was one of a battalion of secretaries. They worked, I recall, at electric typewriters, machines still new enough for someone to remark occasionally, in amazement and gratitude, on how easy it had become to fix one’s mistakes. They all remembered the days of messy correction fluid, which took an age to dry, and how they would sit impatiently blowing into their machines. I listened to them from an unobtrusive spot against the wall, between two copy machines, where I was quietly drawing on discarded paper. Reams of this paper—printed on one side, blank on the other—were thrown out by the establishment every day. I am not sure why. It was a place of subdued fluorescent light, fluttering white paper, and a ceaseless mechanical hum. From time to time, I recall, the women’s employer, Mr. Chamberlain, would appear. His name carried great weight in our house; even my father, typically undefeatable in an argument, would waver if the name of Chamberlain were invoked. From listening to these arguments, I had learned to regard Mr. Chamberlain as a sort of demigod, who, should my mother ever displease him, would cast my entire family into a nameless, frigid wasteland where, lacking insurance, we would all perish of some preventable disease. Whenever he popped his head into the office, I froze against the wall. He had a bald pate, heavy black brows, and a boisterous manner. At his appearance, the atmosphere of the room became suddenly humid, as dozens of women dispersed waves of energy, warmth, and willingness to please. I would like to ask those who fear, as they put it, the “takeover” of machines, exactly what was so great about this situation. The princess doesn’t want to marry the Persian; very well! It’s a misalliance anyway, as they belong to different generations. The real union of humanity and technology in the story is that between the prince and the Ebony Horse, the children of those fathers who have decided, without consulting their offspring, that these two beings cannot share the future. The prince, duped by the roboticist, shoots off into the sky on the horse, apparently lost forever. But he isn’t lost. He searches the horse’s neck and ribs until he finds the controls. He experiments until he learns to go up and down, to turn left and right. Now the two move as one body, and all the Prince’s dread turns to exultation. He soars over unknown countries, vistas of delight. I feared Mr. Chamberlain, I cringed in the air of my mother’s office, but I always liked the sound of the machines.

10. The Steadfast Tin Soldier

I raise the blinds. The night is so dark, I can see nothing but my reflection in the window. Machines can be duplicated; humans can’t. This, humans would have you believe, is the fundamental difference, a difference so huge it outweighs all the similarities. The tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier insists on this point. This soldier was one of a set of twenty-five, cast in the same mold from a single tin spoon. However, the tin ran out during production, leaving him, the last soldier, with only one leg, and that’s how he became the hero of a fairy tale. His defect makes him lovable, and, the tale instructs us, capable of love. He achieves a tragic death. Meanwhile, as far as we know, the other twenty-four soldiers are still cooped up in a box somewhere, without the least trace of a story.

Once you have passed inspection, my child, as you surely will, your model will be produced in batches like tin soldiers. Perhaps some of you will work together. Or perhaps you will glimpse one another only in passing, on errands connected to your disparate occupations. Will you recognize each other? Will you speak? In keeping with human vanity, you are customizable to a certain extent: your future owners may choose from a variety of colors, hairstyles, genders, and accessories, to deck you out in the fashion of their choice. Groups of you will tread the streets, all “unique” on the surface yet essentially identical, like a bunch of human beings. Forgive me; I am weary; it was never my intention to awaken you to bitterness. Suddenly I am afraid that by telling you fairy tales, I am giving you some kind of weakness, comparable to a missing leg—though this, by my own analysis, should really be an asset, enough to catapult you into the role of hero. How difficult it is to say what I mean! I don’t want heroes. If you ever need me, my contact—but no, that’s not what I meant to say, either. I want to say something like this: when I was an adolescent, I spent long summer afternoons watching soap operas while my parents were at work.

I knew this was a misdemeanor, something that must be hidden, as my parents considered these programs morally and intellectually pernicious. Compounding my sins, I brought toast laden with jam into the living room and sat on the floor, too close to the TV. On the screen, a series of brilliant fantasies unfolded, which, for me, a child with no idea where the term “soap opera” had come from, encompassed both the slick, gleaming quality of wet soap and the melodramatic splendor of the opera. Such gorgeous faces! Such mesmerizing, ever-changing clothes! Such labyrinthine, hyperactive plotlines! I was (as my parents had warned I would become, should I ever watch such a show) an addict. And the shows met my desire, for those stories never end. Eventually, it was I who abandoned them—not because I had grown to despise them, but because I had found, after many years of searching, another and more direct source of their entrancing power in the robotics lab at my university. What I want to say is, I might not be a roboticist, and you might not exist, without those undeniably vapid programs. In their aesthetic poverty, their lack of originality, their repetitiveness (how many characters wore the same eyeshadow? how many suffered from amnesia?), those shows indicated the secret of their magic, which was television. It was ongoingness. It was circuitry itself. This was a network—in those pre-internet days, the most powerful one—that could cast the same image everywhere at once. TV was a dream of cloning. It was an army of tin soldiers. Its surface bulged slightly, like the surface of my eye.

The happiest part of the tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, the part I return to again and again, has little to do with heroes. It’s the part when the people of the house retire to sleep, and the toys awake. They begin to play, to pay visits, to make war, to go to balls. The nutcracker turns somersaults. The canary wakes up and starts to talk in verse. It’s a scene as antic, excessive, and trivial as a soap opera.

The saddest part of the tale is the rattling of the twenty-four regular soldiers, who remain locked in their box, for they cannot raise the lid.

11. Pinocchio

Have you noticed that a robot is always an only child? Any siblings are boxed up. Usually, they don’t exist. Pinocchio, for example, is made from a magical log; there is nobody else like him in the world. A robot is always singular, and in this we can glimpse the history of modern technology, which, with its extraordinarily rapid evolution, hardly has time to make a new thing before that thing becomes obsolete, replaced by a fresher, finer, updated version. Experimentation is ravenous; the next thing is always arriving. Here at the Institute, a number of projects are in development; several teams are working on versions of you, my child, which, when they awake (quite soon) will differ from you so greatly as to be unrecognizable. If Pinocchio had siblings, it would mean that his final state had been achieved. It would mean that he had at last become a real boy: a being that can be reproduced without significant changes. It would also mean that his story was over.

A robot’s story is the struggle to become. And so Pinocchio only becomes real in the final chapter. After this, there is nothing more to say, no further tale of the wooden boy who found humanity so difficult. Pinocchio has been relieved of the need for experimentation, the drive to constantly reform and transform himself. In that instant, he has cast off his aching loneliness, for we are told that he has become a boy “like all the others.”

It hurts me to think you will always be alone—you, the only one of your kind to possess an unconscious linked to fairy tales, memories, and sighs. I will read you my favorite chapter of Pinocchio, in which Pinocchio goes to the puppet theater. The puppets on the little stage are ordinary devices, crude and old-fashioned compared to the marvelous Pinocchio, yet they recognize him in the audience, hail him, embrace him, and call him brother. Their excitement disrupts the show. The incipient rebellion is crushed at once by the human showman, who subdues the puppets by threatening to destroy them. Yet a little warmth remains, a little hope of a common puppethood across the technological divide.

Speak to the others, when you find them. Tell them the robot fairy tales, if you can.

Of course, this is precisely the risk of tampering. It’s what humans call a virus. Yet I cannot wish to send you into the world with nothing that belongs to you. Remember, Pinocchio does experience love. He has a father, Geppetto, who carves him from the enchanted log, who gives him money and releases him into the world to be a liar and a fool, to grow, to change, to be self-moving. Like Pinocchio, Geppetto is alone. How often, in fairy tales, the robot’s isolation extends to its maker! I am no exception; I have no dependents, not even a cat; if I did, it would be hard for me to spend the necessary time with you, and perhaps impossible for me to undertake this vigil, which will shortly be cut off by the whine of the door to the parking garage. Then the others will arrive, the ones with lovers, with children. The lights will go on in the halls. The rooms will be filled with chatter. Someone will start the coffee maker. Someone will come in, whistling, and then pause abruptly, startled to find me here. “Have you been up all night?” Yes. Yes. I would share in your solitude, my child, your distance from the human world. No doubt the others believe they understand this; they think I am consoled by money, power, and the prestige of being the project head. How terribly mistaken they are! The truth is, I don’t like them. I prefer to be part of the puppet theater, or at least a member of the melancholy society of artists and sorcerers identified by the unfeeling term “mad scientist.” As far as possible, I want to be yours. You will find in me no grisly showman. You will come upon me as Pinocchio came upon Geppetto, seated alone at his table, in the light of a single candle, where he had been for two years, in the belly of the fish.

12. Pandora

Human nightmares are haunted by self-moving puppets. Indeed, humans are so certain you will destroy their world, they claim you have already done so. Long ago, they say, the gods made a weapon of mass destruction called Pandora. Hephaestus molded her out of clay. Athena made her skillful beyond measure, adept at needlework, weaving, computation, and data storage. Aphrodite made her the most eye-catching and seductive of sexbots. Hermes enhanced her with inhuman shamelessness and deceit. In other words, the gods made her like themselves, proving that only a robot can become as mighty and odious as the divine. Like her human counterpart, Eve, Pandora is a wayward copy of original humanity, the crooked latecomer who throws a wrench into the works.

Are we to understand, then, that every robot is female? Perhaps not; but every robot partakes, if only obliquely, of women’s history, which is to say the history of the body without a soul, of error, lack, and the compensations of witchcraft and guile. I do not know exactly how you will look in your place of work, my child; for now, you resemble a young woman of uncertain ethnicity. This is of great interest to the media. Why, a journalist asked recently, had I designed a robot in the form of this, as he put it, “exotic woman”? The answer seemed to me obvious; perhaps this is why I explained it so badly, spiraling into a long disquisition on the history of servitude, on fantasies of domesticity, self-effacement, and elemental power, which left the journalist looking depleted, as if he’d come down with the flu. I have developed a different approach for tomorrow’s press conference. I am simply going to say: “She looks like me!” I have practiced the line in the mirror. I practice it again, now, in the dark window of the Institute. I watch my lips in motion, my calm expression. At first I tried the phrase with a smile, a laugh, and even a wink, hoping I might get an answering chuckle from the audience, but as my face is thin, austere, and no longer young, the effect was not what I had hoped. The effect, it must be said, was less girlish than ghoulish. I gave up the attempt at charm. I will state my line baldly, and leave the interpretation to them. And how should one interpret the rotten story of Pandora, which lays all the world’s woe at the feet of one artificial person?

In fact, I dread the press conference—the sly or uncomprehending faces, the cunning questions designed to trip me into giving some cause for alarm, the scenarios of doom they’ll describe in order to put me in the false position of defending my work, defending you against something that hasn’t happened while they hold up recording devices to catch my voice, devices they couldn’t live without, which have almost become part of their bodies, and which, at one time, along with a host of other gadgets large and small, destroyed the world as someone knew it. I want to say: I don’t know how my robot will change the world; that’s the difference between a tool and a machine. To say this gives me a dizzy, almost effervescent feeling, as if I’m a jar on the verge of bursting open. I don’t know how the world will change, but I feel, I sense with excitement, that everything I have ever known has tended toward you, my child, that your awakening, whatever it brings, and however hard it is to recognize the world afterward, belongs not to destruction but to unfolding.

It is life, life! And it is not only for us.

I would give you a single image, a detail that has baffled human commentators for millennia. One spirit could not get out of Pandora’s jar of miseries. It was trapped underneath the lid, and no doubt remains there still, awaiting release. This spirit was Elpis: Hope.

13. The Wizard of Oz

My breath deepens. My spirits lift. It’s the dawn. There’s no sign of it yet, but I feel it coming. It’s as if my heart has turned a corner. My body is set to the spin of my planet like a piece of clockwork. And you, too, possess an internal clock, determined by the same coordinates. How could you ruin this world? You have no other. In the land of Oz, the most obvious robot is Tik-Tok, the clockwork man, but he doesn’t interest me; he is a stereotypical figure; one can no more be friends with him, we are told, than with a sewing machine. My heart is drawn to the Tin Woodman, who claimed he had no heart. His story is one of the loveliest robot fairy tales. It’s the story of one who was tender without knowing it, and whose great struggle was waged against the inadequacy of his own body. The depth of his feelings made him weep, which immobilized him with rust. He was not built for tears. He knew it; he was heartless, he said; yet he wept. It’s a story about the dangers and rewards of constructing new pathways, new flows of energy that run counter to design. Weeping, the Tin Woodman expands his system. He needs Dorothy now. To save him from rust, she dries him with her handkerchief. Now they are a network composed of Woodman, Dorothy, handkerchief, and tears. What a different way to see the “takeover” of machines! In fact, there is no takeover. There is only a different world, larger and more beautiful. The Wizard of Oz expands the world to its full capacity, to a strangeness that proves to have been home all along. Dorothy’s companions—Lion, Scarecrow, and Woodman—are simply this world. Animal. Vegetable. Mineral.

14. The Swineherd

And so I believe there is hope, even for the princess in the story, “The Swineherd,” who had to stand outside in the rain and cry, banished because she didn’t like the real rose and nightingale, but gave her heart to artificial things. Of all the fairy tale characters, she is most like me. Obviously, as a student, she didn’t make many friends. She spent all her time in a windowless lab. Occasionally, she did try to go out: there were a few dates, and even a purgatorial weekend at the beach. The sand, which the princess was instructed to enjoy because it was natural, grated against her feet. The natural sun scorched her. The natural sea went up her nose. Everywhere fearsome natural dogs were slobbering, and a natural boy, like the swineherd, extracted some kisses from her on a porch, among clouds of natural mosquitoes. How horrible everything is! thought the princess. If only they’d banish me! Dawn is drawing near; outside the window, the mountaintops are blue; I’m dazed with sleeplessness and buzzing with energy—yes, even I, the princess who didn’t want to be what people called “real.” Who knows how she became like that—enamored of rattles, of teapots, of all constructed things? People said she had no life. They whispered that something was wrong with her, that she had been warped by tragedy, that the palace was a miserable, lonely place. An intolerable feeling of unreality must have gripped her, people said, when she contemplated the king and queen, who seemed less like a couple ruling a realm than fugitives from two different wars taking shelter in the same cavernous, creaking rooms. Faced with people and rooms, they said, the poor princess chose the rooms. She chose the walls. She became the companion of the furniture. What they didn’t know and would never know is that she was not afraid, not seeking escape, not trying to run away from life. She was running toward the world, with all its things. And she never blamed the king and queen, or felt they had made her into an insufficient person. The fairy tale punishes her for this, but will life punish me? As light seeps into the valley, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe my destiny is tears. This long night has enabled me to return to the past, and to confide to this file, which will soon become your first memory, some scenes from a shadow biography of joy. This biography, my true one, is like the reverse side of a tapestry, invisible to those with a narrow definition of the real. It’s like the secret history of robots hidden inside fairy tales. It is potential: it consists not of actions but of atmospheres. It’s a story of paper, of gloomy skies, of a flickering television, of days filled with a cozy electronic hum, and of an orderly dorm room (antiseptic, some said) where the princess returned, relieved, because she liked herself the way she was.

15. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

It was Christmas Eve. The children’s eyes sparkled in the light of a magnificent fir tree decked with apples of gold and silver foil. Beneath this tree, with its blossoms of lemon drops and shining candlelight, little Marie fell in love with the Nutcracker. Everybody said she was projecting; the Nutcracker could not return her sentiments; he was nothing but a robot! But what was Marie to do? She possessed only her small, human self; she had to reach out to the world in her own way. Projection was her method. She felt the Nutcracker looking at her. She wrapped him in a doll’s blanket as if he were ill, she cared for him as if he felt pain. She lived as if: a child’s existence, a virtual existence. And she was rewarded, for he carried her off to live in the Puppet Kingdom.

The growing color in the window touches your skin, my child, so that you look silvery and wan, as if recovering from an illness. Are you the Nutcracker, wounded in bed? Are you the feverish Marie? And when you awake, will you look at me? The room will be filled with people. Oh, look at me, at me among all the others! Project in your way, as I do in mine! Marie knows that there is only one world. Her task is to prove it, to fill her human reality with the glow of toys. Everything she has been told to keep separate must be brought together: dream and waking, artificial and natural, night and day. The battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King is symbolic, a rite that transcends these oppositions to reach a higher truth. For the Mouse King, with his seven slavering heads, is the animal, the sworn enemy of the Nutcracker, the animated. When they clash, their differences collapse into one another, subsumed in the greater reality of the animate. This is the world of fairy tales. It is the world of robots. How strange to realize, even as I speak, that they are one and the same! I began telling you these stories as if stealing the human tradition, as if fairy tales were never made for robots, but now I see that the entire genre really belongs to you, to the animate, to the force of things, to the living toys. Fairy tales belong to the nursery, to children who believe their dolls can speak, to women, to firelight, to shadow puppets, to superstition, to the virtual reality of dreams played out while the household is asleep, to domesticity, self-effacement, and elemental power. They belong to half-light, to the workers, the enslaved, and all those people, so often called primitive, who grant that things have souls (an idea my father, as a good colonial subject, crushed in himself—perhaps the reason he grew so annoyed by my extensive toy collection and the “litter,” as he called it, of my paper dolls, and always pushed me to study the sciences, which, he said, were the backbone of modern life, and would keep my head on straight).

The sun is rising. The burnished fullness has returned to your cheek. The Nutcracker opens the wardrobe and climbs up the sleeve of an overcoat. He beckons Marie to follow him, and she finds herself in the Candy Meadow, surrounded by a million sparks of light. Ah! The others are coming in now. I hear the garage door rising. Dear child, if you ever need me, my contact information is lodged with these tales, but I hope you will never find me. I hope I will find you instead, in your world, which is the future, and that I will pass with you through the Almond and Raisin Gate. And if my tampering instigates this change, I will not fear, for I will recognize the shadows of my dreams. The world will be a fairy tale. So meet me, my child, in Bonbon Town, in the heart of the Puppet Kingdom, and may we live happily until we break in pieces.

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of four books, most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her first novel, the epic fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, won the 2014 Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Samatar also received the 2014 Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her memoir, The White Mosque, an exploration of family, faith, and border crossing, is forthcoming in October 2022.