Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Lifeforce

Kevin Murphy, who voiced MST3K’s Tom Servo, in his book A Year At The Movies, recalls deciding to go see the movie Pootie Tang, and encountering a pair of young men arguing about whether to go see it. When he asked the dissenter why he didn’t want to go see it, the reply was, “Because I think it’s gonna be as stupid as I think it’s gonna be.”

And now for my review of Lifeforce.

When that movie came out in 1985, I was twelve. I hated horror movies, so was uninterested. But I knew the movie was about space vampires, and that sounded pretty stupid to me.

Over the years, a number of people have referenced the movie, and it seems to have attained some sort of cult following as an underrated 80s classic. So when I saw it free to watch on Amazon Prime, I decided to see if maybe my twelve-year old self had been overly judgmental. And indeed, it was not so bad as I had thought.

It was much, MUCH worse than I ever could have imagined. I owe my twelve-year old self an apology. And any of you out there who recommended that movie? Yeah. So do you.

How can I summarize Lifeforce? It’s as if it was made by people who had seen the movies Alien, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, but hadn’t really understood them. These same people had also, however, watched a whole lot of softcore S&M porn and understood it very well. Perhaps too well. The whole movie is about the leading men being unabashedly drawn to an alien who looks an awful lot like Liv Tyler (so, I mean, good taste, there, at least. Note to self: also, Liv Tyler was supposedly 8 years old in 1985. Is it possible that she’s actually a vampire? Research!!), and on the way they acquire telepathic powers that make them capable of telling when a woman wants it rough. Really, I’m not making these plot points up.

During the film it is deduced that the space vampires are truly the source of the vampires of legend, because they demonstrate a whole lot of the classical vampire vulnerabilities and powers, such as vulnerability to being staked, transforming into a giant bat, and becoming a huge glowing ball of light that flies around the city sucking the life out of people using the special effects from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We all remember when Dracula did that, right?

In truth, the vampires develop their new and frightening powers at the twin speed of plot and arousal, but let’s be fair, so do the humans. Nothing in the whole film ever happens for any reason other than that the writers decided it was time for it to. No question raised by the film is ever answered, including whether Liv Tyler and Captain Sex Slave live or die at the end. But that’s okay because we aren’t interested. The only question that REALLY interests me is how they managed to persuade Henry Mancini not only to score this film, but to produce one that sounded like John Williams’ and James Horner’s Greatest Meh.

How To Get Me To Stop Watching Your Movie.

As readers of this blog are aware, I periodically go back and watch movies that intrigued me when they were released, but that I missed for some reason in the theater. So it was with A Simple Plan. As always, spoilers be here. Sort of.

So the movie opens up with Bill Paxton in the company of his brother and his brother’s buddy, who were obviously runners up for the title roles in Dumb and Dumber. They go out hunting and find a crashed Cessna or similar with 4.4 million dollars in it. After a brief debate, they decide to hide the money for a little while, see if anyone comes looking for it, and then split it, with Bill being the money holder.

So far, not a terribly bad idea. But then. Oh, but then…

Having got away with the bag of money, Bill and his wife decide that they have to put some money back so that people won’t believe any of it was stolen. Now, why? If the cops don’t know where the plane is, it’s a fair bet they don’t know what was on the plane. They wouldn’t necessarily be looking for money. Could be looking for guns. Drugs. And if it’s the criminals whose plane it is looking for you, that won’t work anyway: they will know exactly what was on the plane. So, you’re putting your whole secret in extra danger to do something that will not matter a damn.

And then, rather than simply sneak out to put the thing back in the dead of night, Bill decides to have Dumb stand watch for him while he puts the money back. Inevitably, Dumb is challenged by some old fart on a snowmobile, gets in an argument with him about whether he saw a fox and hits him. Dude dies.

Firstly, that situation smacks of The Hand Of Fate. Basically, the universe isn’t letting these people keep this money, and it’s not JUST because they’re too stupid to keep it, it’s because Fate will inevitably contrive to make sure they are always seen, followed and in trouble. Arguments that shouldn’t ever happen. One-punch kills.

Of course, now we panic, which is the dumbest thing in the world to do, and Paxton says, “We have to make it look like an accident!”

IT ALREADY DOES LOOK LIKE AN ACCIDENT, YOU MORON! No one saw the fight except you. All you have to do is call the cops! “We were changing a flat tire when Old Man Grumpy came up on a snowmobile, fell off and hit his head real hard! We tried CPR! Get an ambulance quick! I think he’s dead!” No one’s even going to ask if you hit him. But without thinking of this, they load Grumpy onto the snowmobile and point it toward a bridge.

Now, Old Man Grumpy wakes up (not REALLY dead! There’s Fate again) and tells Bill “Call the police, your brother hit me!” At which point, Bill, deciding the old man has to be kept quiet, strangles him.
Again, leaving aside the whole murder thing, we have a solution in search of a problem. What was wrong with saying, “Thank God you’re okay! I’ll get you to a hospital! By the way, here’s $1000; leave my brother out of it — he’s an idiot?” Or hell, let Dumb serve a few months for assault and tell him to keep his mouth shut if he wants his share of the money.

And THEN, Bill goes home to his wife (who wasn’t that hot on keeping the money in the first place) and confesses to murder, and she’s basically, “Well, you only did what you thought you had to.”

Oh, sure. I mean, I’d totally understand if my wife was asking me to cover up murder for 4 million dollars and risking us both going to prison for life. And then, in the crowning idiocy, the wife discovers that the 4.4M was a ransom payment for a kidnapping and they get second thoughts about keeping the money. Uh-huh. Because murder was excusable, but keeping someone’s kidnapping money is just WRONG.

I couldn;t stand it anymore. I’m sorry, but I can handle your evil smart protagonist; I loved A Clockwork Orange. I can handle your good dumb protagonist, a la Of Mice And Men. But evil dumb protagonists just make me want to stop watching unless it’s being played for laughs. You can’t drink that piss straight.

 

 

Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him in Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.

A Late Review From Avalon: Ready Player One

So, obviously, what with the huge copyright issues involved and not being an idiot, I expected a whole lot of changes to Ready Player One when I sat down to watch the movie. It was, considered as a thing in itself, not terrible.

But it wasn’t the same story, either. And that was disappointing.

See, what made Ready Player One work for me was never the awesome geekery of the premise. That was always just the icing on the cake. Really cool icing, but icing. What made the story work was Wade’s journey of self-discovery. It was the old story of a loser taking on the system, but most importantly, the way he stopped being a loser and grew from a hurt little boy to a very dangerous man. A man who stepped into the dragon’s lair to steal the prize and walked out again.

All that went away. Instead, the characters pretty much just walked through a cheesy video game solving puzzles that the book’s Wade Watts would have figured out without a second thought.

The subtlety also went away. We don’t get to see Wade and Art3mis slowly falling for each other while trying to outdo each other at the same time. We don’t get to see Aech’s and Wade’s friendship develop. And don’t tell me that this isn’t possible in movies. The book’s source material: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ladyhawke, The Breakfast Club,  all excelled in weaving atmospheric slow builds of character development throughout their scripts. Hell, even The Goonies did. But Ready Player One is a sprint to the finish, with the outcome never really in doubt.

And as the protagonists were dumbed down, so did the villains have to be. Nolan Sorrento of the book was a dangerous, evil geek, who wrote his own video games and could almost match Wade’s knowledge.* He was a villain that you could respect. The Sorrento of the film is Dilbert’s PHB, dumb enough to leave a ridiculously easy-to-memorize password out where anyone can see it.

In short the movie isn’t a disappointment because it isn’t the book. It’s a disappointment because it’s so much less than the book.

And it didn’t have to be.

*I will admit this was one of the major flaws in the book: the idea that someone of Sorrento’s talents with his resources of literally hundreds of professional geeks would not have won the contest in a walk, but the Rule Of Cool nullifies that.

Video Game Rant: Faster Than Gossip

I really like 4X Games. My favorites, back in college, were Civilization (yes, I am literally older than Civilization. None of my students get it) and Master Of Orion. Lately, I have been overjoyed to discover Stars In Shadow, which feels like the sequel to Master Of Orion that I always wished had been made and never was. MOO 2 was trying too hard to be Civilization In SPAAAAACE! and MOO 3 is best set on fire and forgotten. But Stars In Shadow has done everything right: Their planetary improvements hit the right balance between monotonous and gimmicky, the ship combat is wonderfully differentiated, with several equally valid styles of play, and the tech tree is interconnected and awesome.

But there is one thing that the game just absolutely falls flat on… the diplomacy.

To be fair, most 4X games handle diplomacy with all the poise and finesse of a drunk Chihuahua. it’s HARD to get AI to simulate negotiation. But the two things that just make me want to punch a fist through the screen are:

  1. The AI Mean Girls Club: No matter what you do in SiS, the AI players know about it. Instantly. And react to it. Instantly. Also, they have an eidetic memory for all your slights. So that means that if I am, say, playing the Gremak, the interstellar slavers, and I enslave members of a race? Everyone knows about it. And everyone cares. I perform experiments on the slaves? That’s instantly known and remembered, too. In fact, races I don’t even know about will show up holding a grudge a hundred turns later. And that sucks because first, it’s a bait-and-switch: “Hey, PC, your race has this super-cool ability, sort of a balance to other races’ super cool abilities you don’t have! But don’t you dare use it, or you will be permanently at war forever, because everybody will hate you!” But it’s not just that: the races will have bad impressions of me because “We heard how you treated the innocent Ashdar!” Which leads to the more important point, that it’s not reciprocal. No one comes to me and says, “Hey just so you know, those evil Orthin have attacked two other races because they noticed that they had inferior navies and thought it would be fun!” No, I get to float in blissful ignorance.
  2. I Don’t Get To Speak The Language: The AI almost always, in these games, has options unavailable to the PC. So I’m constantly getting messages like: “You have a world that is rightfully ours. Return it, and we will stop hating you,” Or, “Sever the diplomatic relations you’ve spent  lot of time forging with our enemies, and remember if you don’t we will dislike you. A lot.” Or, “Give us money and we won’t attack.”
    Meanwhile, I don’t get any of these choices. I can pretty much say, “Let’s have formal relations, let’s have a trade/research treaty, let’s have an open ports treaty/alliance, or let’s have a war.” That’s it. I feel like I am constantly the foreign exchange student just arrived to a gaming party, and I know a third of the language and a quarter of the rules.

I mean, some of these are admittedly hard to code, but hell, the option to demand tribute from enemies was included in Civ I for crying out loud!

You know, it’s still an awesome game. But it really should be better.

Random Stupid Ideas: Rejectomancy Magazine!

Okay, I completely missed yesterday’s blog, because the muse still had not let go of my hair and I was trying to slam out the last 3000 words of an 8000 word story. I finished it this morning, and am now in recovery mode. So here’s Monday’s blog. On Tuesday.

So, have you ever eaten at Ed Debevics? Yeah, it’s that restaurant chain that looks and feels like a fifties diner, only the waitstaff is paid to abuse you by making commentary on your clothes, your face, and your non-participation in singing “YMCA” by the Village People?*

So, I was thinking of this amazing concept, that people would actually pay to be insulted, and how writers are used to being ignored and also see rejection letters — especially personal rejection letters — as good things, and suddenly, an idea was conceived. You ready?

REJECTOMANCY MAGAZINE! The only online magazine in the world where you will submit absolutely knowing that you will be rejected! Takes the guesswork out of it entirely! You send us a story and we GUARANTEE that you will not only GET a rejection, but that it will be a personal and entertaining rejection that WE WILL PUBLISH, telling EVERYONE why we rejected your story!

So not only do we guarantee you a personal response, but WE PUBLISH YOU AS WELL! NOW how does it sound?

All right, so now it’s time for us to answer some questions form our hypothetical audience:

Hypothetical Questioner #1: What, you’re going to reject us, AND publish our story?

A: Hah-hah. No. What are you, stupid? But we will publish the response, maybe with a sentence or two of excerpts designed to highlight your atrocious grammar and impenetrable “style” for the express purposes of a) telling you why we’re not the only people rejecting you and b) making fun of youTechnically, that means that you will have “been published. Sort of.

HQ#2: And you think people will pay for this?

A: Of course not. That would be even harder than getting people to pay money to enter writing contests, which is already stupid and unethical.

HQ#3: But you think people will participate?

A: I don’t know. Possibly. It amounts to offering an honest, albeit tongue-in-cheek and insulting, microcritique. And that’s something a lot of people really do need and want. And the ones who need it most are the least likely to get it. They get form letters.

HQ#4: Well, how do we know you won’t just read the first page and reject us based on that?

A: Um, we absolutely will do that. Do you think pro magazines do differently? The difference is that instead of publishing stories we like, we’ll shred the whole manuscript of those.

HQ#5: What if I send you a story that is so good you just HAVE to publish it?

A: You are EXACTLY the kind of person who needs to submit here, you poor sap.

HQ#6: This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.

A: Maybe. Who wants in?

*Okay, maybe that one was just me.

 

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

Gaming Rant: The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper Need To Go

Without a doubt, my favorite trope in fantasy RPGs is the cult of the Key and Lock.

This is my name for it, but you all know what I mean: it’s the conceit that the Chosen One, the Dragonslayer, the Bringer Of Destiny who shall Destroy Evil and Restore Peace to The Land, Before Whom None Can Stand…

…cannot break locks, doors, or chests.

I can’t count how many times my quests have been interrupted by the simple presence of a locked chest or a locked door. I can slay dragons, assume a phantom form, produce fire at will, and forge steel all day. But simple wooden planks and iron bars and locks stand in my way as an immovable barrier.

I can just about bet that someone’s going to say it anyway, but just in case it prevents condescending comments: YES, I am aware that game designers have to have a way (or it is most expedient to have a way) to keep players out of, to take just one example, the quests that are led to by other quests. It’s easy to break a game if, for example, you have a player just stumble upon the Elder Scroll before ever learning of the Elder Scroll’s existence. I realize that is a difficult problem to deal with.

The problem isn’t that the barriers exist. The problem is that the barriers take the forms of mundane barriers, when those barriers should be very special, because they guard the way to special places. I can think of any number of ways around this that wouldn’t carry such an overt stench of Because The DM Said So.

  1. Chests and Doors that absolutely needed to stay locked until Quest Time could be made of a magical substance, such as adamantium, utterly resistant to magical/physical damage.
  2. Locks on such Chests and Doors could function only with enchanted keys. You’d really only need to change the dialogue box for this.  Many times, I have come across “This lock can only be opened with a key.” Or “This lock is not pickable.” Replace that with “This lock requires the enchanted key.”
  3. Doors that absolutely must stay locked could function similarly to the Doors Of Moria in The Lord Of The Rings. Until you know the right enchantment or Questing Words, they won’t even appear. Or they will be magical gates. Break them, and you just face a wall.
  4. Chests that need to stay locked could function this way, too: They are invisible until you have discovered how to make them visible. Or appear from the Otherworld. Or they are disguised by a powerful illusion spell as a fire, or a bookcase, or something else that doesn’t look like a chest.
  5. Attempting to break such chests or doors might be known to trigger a one-shot kill, if you’re feeling particularly nasty.
  6. For less game-breaking events, like say, high-power items that you want to delay access to, but aren’t game essential, you could make breaking the chest containing them carry a high chance of destroying the contents.

I realize that to a lot of people, these are nitpicks, and in terms of mechanics, they are. But what makes RPGs great is their immersion. And “You Can’t Because The DM Said So” always breaks immersion. You can’t get away with such things in stories, and you shouldn’t get away with them in games. Not when you don’t have to.

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.