I was introduced to science fiction early in life. Early enough that it’s possible I thought the first moon shot was just another TV show when first I saw it. Amusing as that may be, it meant that my first exposure to robots/cyborgs was as bad guys. During that era, robots embodied humanity’s fears of burgeoning technology and change. Atom bombs weren’t new anymore. They were still terrifying – maybe more so – because twenty + years after watching them in action, the species was still counting the ongoing cost of having unleashed them. Couple that with the fears inspired by a seemingly unending Cold War and the late 60s/early 70s were a nearly psychotic blend of unbridled optimism and puckered up fear.
Leave it to someone as bright as Isaac Asimov to come up with the Three Laws of Robotics:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Great laws, right? They ended up becoming part of the scifi canon – referenced and acknowledged by other scifi writers all over the place (including tongue in cheek cracks made by one of my least favorite robots in TV: Tweeky from Buck Rogers.) You know why he created these rules, yes? So he could break every single one of them in his stories about robots and then spend his literary time working out the mystery about how and why the Laws were broken or bypassed in any given story. My father suggested that along with Asimov’s Three Laws, there were three kinds of robot story.
- A man, a woman and the robot – pseudo-romance wherein the robot believes it loves (and of course ends up having to be destroyed)
- The robot that’s going to destroy the world
- The robot that’s going to save the world
I have favorites in each category. Among those who intend to save the world, C3P0 is my favorite. This isn’t about sexy. It’s just about fun. C3P0 would play a mean game of Scrabble, I’m sure.
Among the robots/cyborgs going to destroy the world, I’m torn. The robots of Westworld or the Borg. Both deliciously bad. One without meaning to be (this is another story where Asimov’s Three Laws were assumed and one of them broken), and the other unrepentantly out to consume us all.
I left the ‘man, woman, and a robot’ trope to last because there are two ways (more actually, but we’ll get to that) for that storyline to go. Guy falls for girl. Robot falls for girl. Guy and robot battle one another for girl. In the first of the ways for that to end, the girl is horrified by the attentions of the inhuman ‘monster’. The guy conquers the robot, guy gets girl, everyone but the robot lives happily ever after. My favorite: Edgar the computer from the 1984 movie, Electric Dreams. I’m sorry, the hero of the movie is yummy and all, but Edgar had a sterling sense of humor and of the absurd. He was way more fun.
The other ending for this comes from modern romance novels. The robots/cyborgs ARE the heroes of the romance story. And my all time favorite is Linnea Sinclair’s cyborg hero Kel-Paten from her novel Games of Command. Smexy and yummy. The story is also a super fun read. This is my favorite of her books. And the hero of this story is easily my fav cyborg. Anywhere. He could come knocking on my door just about any day.
As for the other possible story permutations I mentioned – has anyone done a story where the robot falls for the guy and not the girl? Do robots *have* gender? What about a robot that falls for BOTH? So many possibilities out there on the edges of questioning what makes us unique and human.
My love of robots and other mechanical people started young–very young–with the TV show Lost in Space. Admitting that dates me, but I remember running around the block, waving my arms and screaming “Danger, Danger Will Robinson,” because “the Robot” (sort of like “the Doctor”, okay its a stretch) was, and remains, my favorite character from the show. The Robot signified, at least to me, how to befriend someone very different, the increasing importance of mechanical devices in our life and the need to think deeply about that, and the assumption that mechanical devices are are friends–usually.
The next set of robots that clanked into my life exacerbated my fangirl leaning toward mechanical characters. I discovered old movies and from those classics, Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet) and Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still) stood out. Like the Robot, both remained subject to humanoid direction, but both were mechanical beings in places where machines or humanoid mechanical creations were not all good.
The machine became the answer to the machine.
This theme now permeates culture. And what a key questions we struggle with now are: “Where are the lines, specifically how much do machines serves us and at what point do we go to far? At what point, does sentience come into play?
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner) take on these themes and remain relevant reads and films trying to answer these questions, as do many others. Answers are not easy and they are getting more complex.
On TV, enter Data on Star Trek TNG, a fully mechanical being, who seems to have a soul, pitted against the Borg, an integration of machine and biological matter, which does not while connected to the hive mind. Now that we’ve hit the 21st century struggle, the question of what it means to be human when we rely increasingly on machines, which are getting smarter, faster, cheaper, is starting to loom large?
And what threats do they present? Terminator took that question head on as does Transformers. In both, we see machine vs machine as a core underlying message.
Now, as we move firmly into the digital age, with an increasing reliance on bytes and metal, these questions are even more pressing. I still love robots, but will they love us? What do you think? (spooky music plays in the background).
Sabrina Garie is on a journey to create the most kick-ass heroine in romance fiction. Meet Jocelyn, a single mom who gets a second chance at love in her newest book Next Move available from Ellora’s Cave and Amazon.
Great villains don’t see themselves as villains. This moral blind spot not only enables their bad ass ways but also dangles a nuanced humanity–accessible actions that have us believing in their potential for redemption–that makes them so downright scary.
Great villains have:
- Focus and purpose—they are on a mission, even if we don’t agree with it.
- Leadership and fierce intellect—while there are many lone villains out there, I like those that come as part of a pack. Their ability to motivate their people, care for them even if that care is twisted reveals that nuanced humanity.
- Beauty and Seductiveness—their words, mannerisms, looks, intellect, all would be drop dead sexy if their bad wasn’t so truly bad. They tempt us using our weaknesses as bait.
I’ve got two favorites—one male, one female. Let’s start with Hans Gruber, played to perfection by Alan Rickman, in the film Die Hard.
When he glides off the elevator in a custom-tailored, Savile Row suit, followed by a horde of to-die-for bad boys masquerading as terrorists to execute the ultimate burglary, Hans had me at: “I could talk about men’s fashion and industrialization all day but I’m afraid work must intrude .” The British accent upped him on the hot scale, and had him serving up dialogue in a way that made me swoon.
Witty, sophisticated, brilliant, I’d have gone for him big time if he didn’t have a ruthless penchant for killing innocent people. Although he radiated heartlessness, he wrangled his pack as a true leader, stayed firm to his goals, perverse as they might be, and maintained a veneer of politeness when dealing with the hostages (even though he did ultimately plan on killing them all). Not a hair or etiquette out of place.
What really made Hans accessible was Alan Rickman’s performance. In Rickman’s own words, Hans was not a villain. And that is why he nailed the character—he kept him human.
My favorite female bad ass is the Borg Queen (BQ) from Star Trek, played by Alice Krige in the movie First Contact and Susanna Thompson in the Star Trek Voyager series. BQ slinks into our world with the swagger of a seductress, catching Lt. Commander Data in her claws. Take a peak:
BQ: “Are you familiar with physical forms of pleasure?”
Data: “If you are referring to sexuality, I am fully functional, programmed in multiple techniques.”
BQ: “ How long since you’ve used them?”
Data: “Eight years, seven months, 16 days, four minutes, 22—“
BQ: “Far too long.”
If you haven’t seen the movie, yes, she kisses him and he kisses her back. In addition to temptress, the Borg leader prowls with the protectiveness of a mother tigress shielding her young. Here’s a snippet from Endgame with Seven of Nine, a former Borg drone returned to humanity by Janeway and the Star Trek Voyager crew:
BQ: “Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01. It’s been too long.”
Seven: “What do you want?”
BQ: “Do I need a reason to visit a friend?”
Seven: “We’re not friends.”
BQ: “No. We’re more than that. We’re family.”
She may not be human, but the humanity in that demeanor cannot be denied. With an emotional vein, not present in the drones she leads, she can be hated. The Borg drones are victims, and can only elicit only our pity.
The Borg Queen as mother brings us closer to her and separates us from her entirely. To protect her collective, her family, is to terminate us. What I love most about her villainy is that while Picard and Data defeated her, only Captain Janeway, another mother guarding her family, could destroy her. Like Ellen Ripley and the Alien Queen, it takes a mother to outmaneuver a mother. An interesting twist when dealing with female baddies.
It’s that need for family and loyalty to achieve defined objectives that makes these villains great, and gives us a way to understand them even as we hate them. That nuance haunts us because it reminds us that but for fate, we are not that far away from villainy as we sometimes like to think.
I’d love to hear from you. What characteristics make up a great villain? Do they differ between male and female baddies?