Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. This blog will outline her experiences teaching an Honors English Composition course about created entities, beginning with the golem of Jewish legend and continuing through cyborgs, robots, androids, and artificial intelligence.
This section focuses on two texts and a film: Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories and essays Robot Visions. I chose the latter instead of the more popular I, Robot for two reasons. First, the number of stories plus their mixture with essays gave me a great choice of texts. The essays provided the students with some background and analytical exploration of robots. The second reason is the collection contained the novelette The Bicentennial Man, which I wanted to teach to provide a longer example of Asimov’s work. The students were excited to get to robots, the shiny humanoid forms, after the automata of the previous section.
We began with Capek’s play, which gave the world the word “robot,” which is the Czech word for “serf.” Capek’s dystopic play, performed and published in 1921, is very concerned with the rights of the worker. It appeared in a time and a place where communism, socialism and capitalism were beginning to clash. The play enjoyed international success, debuting on Broadway in 1922 and in the West End in 1923. By the time it was performed in London, the play had been translated into thirty languages and performed in many other cities.
While the students’ expectations of CP3O-like robots were not exactly met, they were not disappointed. They learned that these “original” robots of R.U.R. were not mechanical at all but were instead organic in composition. However, this fact does not matter too much because the mechanical mode of production Capek describes puts one in mind of Henry Ford’s assembly line with robots working to produce more robots ad nauseum. We talked a lot about Capek’s world and why a world freed from work might be appealing, especially when many workers of the time felt as if they were dehumanized and only a part of the machinery of capitalism.
I structured the class so that the students read the Prologue and Act 1 for a Monday, on Wednesday we watched excerpts of Metropolis in class, and then we finished the play on Friday. Showing them Metropolis really helped them visualize how Capek thought about labor. The class is only 50 minutes, so I had to choose sections of the movie carefully. We focused on the first few minutes that juxtapose the workers at shift change with the rich boy Freder in the Eternal Gardens. The second section we watched was the explosion of the M-Machine in the factory, and finally we watched Maria’s transformation into the “machine-man.” Some of these moments are in this restoration trailer. (The students did finally get their shiny robot.)
We concluded our discussion of R.U.R., focusing on the character of Helena, who through her desire to be a do-gooder, dooms mankind to extinction. Many of them noticed that Helena represented the upper class who wanted to improve the world but did not know the price of a loaf of bread. She has the charm of her namesake, Helen of Troy, and uses it to convince Dr. Gall to give the robots souls. This change created a new race of robots, who suddenly cared that they were working for beings who were weaker and dumber than they were. This caused the worldwide revolt and slaughter of all of humanity, except for one man who could build any more robots because Helena had destroyed the formula as a last-ditch effort to remedy her mistakes.
The ending of the play is ambiguous but points toward a super-evolved robot couple, Primus and Helena (named after the character), repopulating the earth the old-fashioned way. The Robot Helena is a commentary on her namesake. Dr. Gall remarks: “She is as lovely and foolish as the spring. Simply good for nothing.” Unlike the sterile human Helena, she developed the ability to procreate and with Primus (whose name means “first”) becomes, the new Adam and Eve.
We noticed that Capek, like Mary Shelley, was not interested in the science of robot creation; Isaac Asimov, however, adds the concept of the positron brain and his three laws to bring in some science. I tried to choose stories that demonstrated Asimov’s exploration of his robots’ humanity, such as “Robbie,” “Evidence,” and “Robot Vision.” (Personally, I prefer the puzzle stories that demonstrate robots acting strangely because the laws are in conflict or a human gives a confusing order, such as “Runaround” or “Little Lost Robot.”) We also read essays in which Asimov explored why humanity would make robots in a human shape (“The Friends We Make”) and what mankind would do if robots replaced it as workers (“Whatever You Wish”). The second one provided an interesting counterpoint to R.U.R.
The students wrote papers that connected the ideas emerging in this section back to earlier ones. Some explored two reasons that humans fear robots in Asimov’s stories and Capek’s play. Others tried to define Asimov’s term “Frankenstein Complex,” which he never really defines, and to investigate its implications. I asked them to argue if Asimov’s use of the term seems to perpetuate or combat the Frankenstein Complex. Only one student chose the creative option to write a dialog between Capek and Asimov discussing robots, humans and work. All of these themes will transition us nicely to the next section which contains Marge Piercy’s He, She and It and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?