Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Robots Before There Should Be Robots

When I wrote about history’s first mechano-man (or at least the first guy on record to get a spare part), I said that people of the fifteenth-century wouldn’t have known what a robot was. And they wouldn’t, at least according to how we use the word today.

That thing is, robots as a general concept wouldn’t have been completely unfamiliar to some people, depending their level of education. Presented for you consideration: two instances of robots, essentially, from back before robots should have been a thing.

First, there’s Hebrew bruiser himself, the golem. What do you call a hunk of inanimate material that walks around on two legs and follows commands? Well, if it exists in Jewish folklore, you call it a golem, but you might as well call it a robot. Think about it: Golems “turn on” as a result of a word, a written command. Isn’t that a computer program in its most essential state? As the stories go, most golems lumber around and smash things in the style of robots from 50s B-movies — or maybe like Frankenstein’s monster, who also is kind of a golem, just powered by electricity rather than commands — but technically, Son Number One himself, Adam, is a golem. According to the second creation story in Genesis, God made Adam from clay — “[kneaded] him into a shapeless husk” and then breathed life into him. So following that mushy golem logic, we’d be golems too. And that’s a different kind of weird.

And then there are the helperbots. Had anyone in ol’ Iron Fist’s time been familiar instead with Greek mythology, they might have known about Hephaestus, the smithy god who supposedly forged golden assistants to help him in his metalworking efforts. (I assume that some text at point in time gives these steampunk helper-bots had names. I can’t find them.) When you’re talking about his Roman equivalent, Vulcan, they’re specified as metallic slave-girls, which, of course, lends the story a whole Roman-style sexy element. Hephaestus also made a guard robo giant enough to make even the biggest fan of Japanese TV proud: Talos, a towering bronze automaton who protected Crete my smashing nearby ships with boulders. Dude — that’s an action figure right there. Kids would love that

I’ll be honest, this kind of creeps me out, kind of in the same way I feel about that carving of the Mayan dude who’s supposedly piloting a spaceship or that Egyptian snake-in-the-jar that some people think is a lightbulb. I see the connection, I don’t know what to make of it, and the whole time I’m telling myself “Well, that shouldn’t be.”

I wonder if this gets to anyone else the way it does to me — not just that an vague awareness of robot technology seems to lurk in stories eons before it could exist in real life, but also that the conception of it back then matches up so well how robots exist in pop culture today. Maybe the human mind has always wanted to make its own people? Or its own cheap labor? Maybe the basic idea of these creations just hasn’t significantly changed since way back in the day? Or is it that these artificial workers that populate old stories ended up informing the creative processes of scifi writers ever since?

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