Affairs with robots — does that even work anymore?

Posted: April 27, 2012 in Books, Movies
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Affairs with electronic women are overrated.

Time may prove me wrong on that one. Robot technology is, after all, still developing. Maybe a bunch of clever scientists will beat the whole “uncanny valley” factor and produce a robotic mate with whom an affair seems appealing, rather than creepy on a very large number of levels.

But the idea of having a relationship with an electronic simulation of a woman apparently seemed a lot more romantic in decades past than it does now.

The thought occurred to me recently when I traveled to Delaware to see a community theater production of Alan Ayckbourn’s play “Comic Potential,” because my friend Scott Pruden was acting in it.

For the record, it was an excellent production. All of the actors were very good — Scott in particular. (And in addition to being a fine comic actor, he’s an excellent writer. I highly recommend his science fiction novel “Immaculate Deception.”)

The play is a romantic comedy set in the near future, centering on a romance between a young man and a beautiful female robot. It’s entertaining.

But afterward, I reflected on the science fiction trope of a guy getting involved with a robot woman. It seems to me that plot device has become as anachronistic in its own way as those old science fiction stories about rocketship voyages to the verdant, inhabited surface of the moon.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of old-timey science fiction. Come to think of it, I still am. I think of them as fables, in which the writers draw on the more fantastic possibilities of technology to make some kind of statement about the human condition. (Is it possible to use the phrase “the human condition” without sounding pompous? Apparently not.)

And I remember the human-guy-hooks-up-with-robot woman storyline coming up fairly regularly. A couple of examples I can cite off the top of my head are the 1938 short story “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey, and the 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode “The Lonely.” Classics, both.

While “Comic Potential” had its winning moments, I wouldn’t consider it a classic. And since it premiered in 1998, that anachronistic element I referred to earlier seemed all the more puzzling.

It’s set in the near future, where robots serve as the actors in soap operas. A young writer encounters a beautiful robot actress who possesses a spark of humanity that sends her on a Pinocchio-like quest to become a real girl. Along the way, naturally, she and the young writer fall in love.

And in a standard feature of this type of story, it has a scene where someone tells the guy, in effect: “She can’t love you! She’s just a machine!” We the audience, of course, know better. And the Philistines who question the sincerity of their love are inevitably proven wrong.

So why do I say that story line has become outdated? For much the reason those stories about the inhabited surface of the moon have. Technological advances have actually taken us to the moon. And we know it’s not like that.

Similarly, electronic simulations of beautiful women with whom men can interact are no longer just science fiction plot devices. They exist, and men actually do become obsessed with them.

Want evidence? I just did a Google search on the term “Lara Croft erotic fanfiction,” and got 1,890,000 results. (For the record, the Google search is as far as I got. Yeesh!)

Turns out the Philistines were right. She can’t love you. She’s just a machine. And the guys who can’t wrap their heads around that concept aren’t romantic idealists, so much as rather sad individuals.

Then again, the best examples of the human-on-robot love stories, like the aforementioned “Twilight Zone” episode, dealt with the artificiality and ultimate emptiness of the “ideal lover” fantasy. And some more recent science fiction works have dealt very compellingly with that theme. I’m thinking “Blade Runner” and “A.I.”

So maybe that plot device isn’t as anachronistic in the age of Lara Croft erotic fan fiction as I originally thought.

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