Tagged: Theme

An automaton is a constructed device with powered working parts, often but not necessarily humanoid, often but not always immobile, never conscious, and generally designed to be seen (unless it is specifically hidden). Because it does not think, it cannot be a slave (see Slavery). As much spectacle as Machine, it has been over the centuries often been presented as a Predictive image of humanity's future escape from toil or, more recently, as a dreadful warning of our fate as cogs in a totalitarian world (see Automation). When an automaton exists in reality, it is of course not sf, though it may express something of the mood if not the substance of sf; in fiction, it is usually presented as an Invention beyond the reach of the Technology at the time of the telling, except when the story is about a hoax, which case the technology is of course fake, or the device is exaggeratedly impossible, as in the drawings of W Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg.

In sf and Fantastika, automata which move are usually but not always bipedal; those which house humans are most likely to be thought of as Mechas. A mobile automaton in fiction will often be presented within the frame of a hinted premonition that it may not be an automaton at all but an entity able to "think", in which case it is a Robot; in this encyclopedia, humanoid entities which are able to "think" and which have been brewed or born are never referred to as automata but as Golems or Androids or Cyborgs. Those automata which do not unveil themselves as thinking creatures are, all the same, normally designed to convey a sense that they may be conscious, that there may be a ghost in the machine (see AI; Brain in a Box; Computer).

Automata organized in rows can be thought of as workers (or "hands") in an assembly line (see Automation). Automata clustered together in the same perceived space may be either in storage, in which case their "awakening" may be a signal for rampage, or in the process of enacting a staged routine, in which case a similitude of meaningful intercourse on trompe l'oeil lines is being performed, much like puppet theatre (though puppets and marionettes, which are operated but not self-powered, are not automata). But any theatrical enactment by an automaton alone or clustered must be generated from prior instructions, though sometimes these may be of great intricacy: because automata cannot originate. When they perform Music – shaped as humanoid torsos on pedestals, or player pianos, or music boxes – they play that which already exists as though it were new. Calliopes, though they may be as heavily geared as most automata, are in fact played (not switched on), and are therefore musical instruments, like (for instance) the almost unplayable Antagonistic Undecagonstring featured in Iain M Banks's The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Nor do automata that have been constructed as toys (see Toys in SF) come to life: if they do, as in fiction they are likely to, they are no longer automata.

Even the simplest timepiece is a kind of automaton, though perhaps almost too simple to count. The cuckoo clock clearly repeats itself, sometimes complicatedly. Automaton "lighthouse clocks" that turn on their base are not uncommon; similarly geared windmill clocks can also be found. Orreries are geared but never, it seems, embedded in humanoid casings. Some clock towers – like the fifteenth-century Astronomical Clock in Prague, or the twenty-first-century Chronophage in Cambridge – may hoax the viewer into thinking time itself is being performed anew, again and again, that something original is happening: no longer a theatre of memory but Fantastika in its very telling: as so often, an aura of the liminal is conveyed by an automaton whose similitude or movements verge upon the Uncanny-Valley. Or as Arthur C Clarke could have put it (see Clarke's Laws): "Any sufficiently advanced automaton is indistinguishable from magic."

Automata were imagined before they were built. In the literature of the West, the half-god Hephaestus as depicted in Homer's Iliad may be the first fabricator of imagined artificial beings, mobile tripodal creatures capable of attending the gods (Book 18); automated guards, some canine, some simply gigantic, can be found elsewhere in Greek literature; and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) describes Hephaestus's tripods as prototypes of a potential working class, which could replace slaves (but see again Slavery): Aristotle's tripods, like Haephaestus's, are in fact more like Karel Čapek's Robots than Wolfgang von Kempelen's chessplayer (see below). (Daedalus, who constructed a hollow cow for Pasiphaë's mating and wings for his son Icarus, is not credited with the invention of devices with self-moving parts.)

In the Western world, verifiable automata seem to date from the beginning of the Common Era. The Greco-Egyptian mathematician Hero of Alexandria (10-70 CE) can be seen as central for his Invention of various automated devices, including a mechanical drama whose "actors" are governed by something that may, in retrospect, may seem to have resembled what we would now call a Computer; he also devised a water basin containing metal birds that sang, possibly the earliest precedent for the singing birds in William Butler Yeats's Byzantium poems. Hero is of further importance for imagining in detail an aeroplane powered by steam (steam being a vital Power Source for Steampunk automata two millennia later). Under the name Phanocles, a Hero-like character features in William Golding's play The Brass Butterfly (1957; rev 1958), where a range of very similar inventions is repudiated by a not-unsagacious Roman emperor because they would disrupt the world. But this is Golding's hindsight: for at least a thousand years, automata in the real world, whether imagined or actually fabricated, seem not to have aroused fears that they would change history; and seem mostly to have been designed ceremoniously to soothe crowned heads.

With the Renaissance, and the development of sophisticated clockworks and springing, more intricate devices began to proliferate, though Leonardo da Vinci's obsequious mechanical lion, who kowtows to some French monarch, seems unlikely to have roared in truth. But much was to follow. A few examples only are given here. The Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) seems to have created some genuine apparatuses, including a self-playing kriegspiel (see Wargame). The French artist Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) invented an open-plan "Digesting Duck", as notated in Brian Stableford's Automata: The Imaginative Legacy of Jacques de Vaucanson (anth 2020), and which prefigures a very similar creation in Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears (2012). In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) introduced what he claimed to be a chessplaying automaton, a successful hoax eventually exposed by Edgar Allan Poe in the nonfiction "Maelzel's Chess Player" (April 1836 Southern Literary Messenger): the contraption being operated from within by a human. Some of von Kempelen's other inventions were genuine (if exceedingly straightforward) automata. After several previous artifacts, Henri Maillardet (1745-1830) created in 1805 perhaps the most sophisticated early automaton in human shape, a figure holding a pen in its mechanical hand, which could both write and draw.

For many decades after technological advances in the eighteenth century made them significantly easier to construct, automata tended to be showpieces: clockwork dummies or puppets or hoax chessplayers, or performers of haunting music as in François-Félix Nogaret's The Mirror of Present Events (1790 chap), which also features an automaton who enchants an audience and en passant gives birth to Cupid. Slightly later iterations in the fiction of E T A Hoffmann – the Talking Turk in "Automata" (1814) and Olympia, the haunting mechanical doll featured in "Der Sandmann" ["The Sandman"] (comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, 1816) – present a more verisimilitudinous image, and may play a sinister role, their wondrous artifice being seen as an unholy manifestation of the Devil's power to present himself as a Doppelganger of human victims and to draw them down into madness. The automaton in Herman Melville's "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly) has similar connotations; a late presentation of the automaton as a built conveyor of evil is the clockwork eponym of Jerome K Jerome's "The Dancing Partner" (March 1893 The Idler). Swarms of automata fill the background of Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Coming Race (1871). More extravert renderings of the concept of the automaton include the Transportation device featured in Edward Ellis's Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), or Jules Vernes The Steam House (1880 2vols), or Luis Senarens's Frank Reade and His Electric Man (1885 chap). Even Eve in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's The Eve of the Future (1886), despite her androidal verisimilitude, is not a true robot, lacking any form of cognition. H G Wells mentioned autonomous digging and handling machines with a robotic function in The War of the Worlds (1898), but aside from noting that these Martian tools worked "in a methodical and discriminating manner [...] without a directing Martian at all.", he did not develop the idea further.

The prime of the automaton was the nineteenth century, with images and anticipations of actual and dreamed-of automata an element in the sometimes Utopian waves of technological anticipation that characterize that century, one of many examples being the automata that do women's work in Mary E Bradley Lane's Mizora (1890). But even before the experience of World War One radically intensified European apprehensions about mass killing, mass culture, and the death of organic civilization, visions of brainless automata as prolepses of free labour and the end of scarcity began to be replaced in the imagination of authors of Fantastika by Dystopian visions of arrays of brainless mechanical workers and warriors obsoleting the organic past. Automaton Becomes Automation. Karel Čapek's R.U.R (1920; trans 1923) is doubly significant: as a register of the growing post-War distrust of the assembly line as synecdoche for a benign universal productivity; and as an interrogation of the nature (and rights) of conscious beings. Automata in fiction became increasingly ambivalent, increasingly unsafe as images of displayed ingenuity, to the point that (as noted above) it became much more plausible to describe artificial beings as Robots or Androids, and depictions of automata as such become relatively uncommon, certainly in Genre SF.

A non-genre novel may be more likely to find sustenance in the problematics of non-sentience. The complex ambiguities attendant upon the seemingly mindless stagings of human interactions by "automannequins" in Vladimir Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave (1928), for instance, represent automata as inherently liminal between machine and flesh-puppet. In the visual arts, an almost hypnagogic focus on liminality increasingly marks the work of many twentieth-century figures, though not all sculptors of the liminal insert motors into their haunted/haunting effigies and anatomies. The more recent work of The "Körperwelten" of Gunther von Hagens (1945-    ), "plastinated" corpses caught in lifelike gestures, are a psychic re-enactment of a vision of human beings revealed as built: constituting an evisceration of the argument of René Descartes (1596-1650) that creatures of flesh were on reduction simply complex machines, and that their moving parts could be replaced with gearing. Von Hagens's work perhaps represents one point beyond which such speculation is unlikely to extend. More winning are the hand-crafted automata created by Keith Newstead (1956-2020), many of them built for the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre which he founded in 1982, though it might be noted that many of his automata are in fact fantasticated but not impossible devices, and others could be described as Robots. One notable ensemble piece shows (in miniature) Mervyn Peake's castle of Gormenghast with selected inhabitants performing characteristic actions in their various rooms

By the end of the twentieth century, almost with an air of regret, automata in fiction were increasingly presented as icons of futures we did not take, recent examples including Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006), where they are immured in stories that – like all the other stories in that novel – would not come true tomorrow; and (two examples from many), James P Blaylock's The Digging Leviathan (1984) and others, or Stephen Palmer's Steampunk tale, The Conscientious Objector (2020), set in an Alternate History version of World War One, which features polished automata.

Some further twentieth-century automata appear in G K Chesterton's otherwise nonfantastic Father Brown tale "The Invisible Man" (February 1911 Cassell's Magazine), featuring headless, hook-handed clockwork dolls as uncomplaining household servants; Ernest Bramah's "The Ingenious Mr Spinola" (in The Eyes of Max Carrados coll 1923), with a fraudulent card-playing automaton created by a kind of Mad Scientist to fund, through games at high stakes, the construction of an Analytical Engine (see Charles Babbage); L P Hartley's "The Travelling Grave" (in Shudders, anth 1929, ed Cynthia Asquith), whose eponym is an animated man-trap that is also a self-burying coffin; Gerald Kersh's "The King Who Collected Clocks" (3 May 1947 Saturday Evening Post as "The Royal Imposter"; vt March 1948 Argosy UK), in which a lifelike mechanical doll stands in for the dead monarch on whom it was modelled; Gene Wolfe's "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" (in Universe 7, anth 1977, ed Terry Carr) (see Chess); Christopher Fowler's Darkest Day (1994; rev vt Seventy-Seven Clocks 2005), where murders are ordained by the increasingly erratic workings of a long-running Babbage engine; and Philip Pullman's Clockwork; Or, All Wound Up (1996 chap), with another ingenious killing machine in the shape of a small armoured knight. Maelzel-style fakes whose secret is the need for a hidden child or dwarf operator play significant parts in The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr and World of Wonders (1975) by Robertson Davies (1913-1995). An almost immeasurably complex clockwork governs time in Paul Witcover's The Emperor of All Things (2013).

"Automata" in Cinema tend to seem animate, or to be about to morph into life. There are hints of that in some of the enormous machines in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), but the central artificial creation is of course Maria, a humanoid Robot, and though some of the devices in the assembly line that imprisons the Tramp in Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) are automata-like, the true terror of the film lies in the Tramp's fear that he may become one. The film Autómata (2014) directed by Gabe Ibáñez is about Robots disobeying Isaac Asimov's three Laws of Robotics.

It might be suggested that in the twenty-first century we are less afraid of the brainless automaton, even hordes of them, than we are afraid of autonomic apps, which in their interwoven hordes can be imagined forging the Singularity in selfless silence, and "thinking" on our behalf as they embed themselves within us. It might be suggested that we are not now that much afraid of automata which might replace us: that our deeper fear today is that we are becoming automata. [JC]

see also: 80 Days; Deadlands; Kraftwerk.

further reading


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.