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Why are robots so fascinating?

A collection of random notes on works in progress.

Robot head! Actually a camera from the Remote Lounge in New York.

Recently I began to work on an essay about why there are no longer any good essays about why there are no longer any good novels. In performing a survey of the literature, I was able to trace things back to Umak of Sur, who in 6000 B.C. etched into clay a complaint that the quality of Sumerian pictographic prose had gone down terribly since the new Gods had been introduced. “These new Gods with their quick, colorful actions and powerful wrath,” he wrote, “have turned literature from useful lists of commercial transactions in beer and wheat into lengthy, digressive stories of strong men overpowering mythic beasts.”

Then, about 8 months ago, browsing the library for books on Sumerian literary criticism, I ran across The Robot in the American Popular Imagination, by Lawrence Shore, Ph.D., published by Yale University Press (yup). As its title indicates, the book is about a little boy named Tim who builds robots in his garage and uses them to take care of his pet ducks, and then the robots get in a lot of trouble when Tim says “take the ducks to the park for a walk” and the robot hears “take the ducks to the park and kill them, kill them, kill them with your vicious robot claws!” But a friendly policeman sees the robot and stops him and saves the day and explains to Tim why it's okay to be naked in a policeman's living room. I read this book, and I thought, chicken pot pie, because I was hungry, then I drank a lot of water and thought, I should stop work on my essay on Sumerian metacriticism and start writing about robots.

That essay, entitled “Why are robots so fascinating?” quickly ballooned to over 300 words, 150 of them “robot.” And why not? The mere word “robot” gives me instant glee. Who could want for things to say on the subject? I'd finally found a topic that would last me forever, something where I could demonstrate my erudition and careful thought. I sat amongst my notes confident that my special genius had finally found its focus.

But by the time I got to the 400th word (I remember the day - September 10th), I realized the answer to the question was “Robots are fascinating because they are like people, and people are disgusting narcissistic beasts.” I felt totally certain that all my work was, suddenly, in vain. That day I considered, ever so briefly, returning to the arms of those who love me and explaining that my quest for knowledge had been in vain, but decided on painful suicide instead.

As you can see, the suicide attempt didn't work, because the damn things fell down before I could jump off them. And then the bridges were too crowded, and the city was shut down and I couldn't get anywhere else. I gave up on the idea and went back in desperation to an even earlier project, my long profile of Ken Briever.

Briever was the editor of Ftrain between 1943-1971, during the days when this Web site was worth reading. He was an interesting person - in his youth he operated a steam ship and helped unionize coal farms, when people still planted coal, but in the last years of his life, through a loophole in Maryland law, he became a slaveowner, and advocated the total destruction of Central America. I have a few thousand pages of his notes to a novel called The Shaven Lamb here in the Ftrain offices, and his blood-spattered coat from the night of his assassination; his presence literally hovers over everything I do, and this chair still smells like him. But to tell the truth, I just can't get inspired to finish the profile. So I sit here dawdling, blocked and crabby between bouts of furious onanism (unless a tomato counts as a human, at which point I'm committing adultery). I don't know what to do next.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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