Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

In the googolplex of science fiction genres, is there a category called “sarcastatech?” My spelling bot wants to say “no” to this question, using a “no results found” notification. It is how spelling bots talk, after all, in their (ironically) limited vocabulary. And that is about the extent of my interest in the life of digital entities in our midst–at least until the Robot Apocalypse finally comes. Still, Martha Wells’ Hugo Award-nominated novel, Network Effect, not only kept my interest in the midst of its technically precise AI details, but drew me into the story through its android protagonist SecUnit 1, also known as Murderbot.

Except for some of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction stories and an affinity for classic hard sf writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven (when they are at their best), I don’t tend to read very technical science fiction. It’s true that I love some tech-laced cyberpunk—in a precursor form with writers like Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick (with the screen adaptations), in its mastery with William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer and his gang of visually dynamic storytellers, or in a post-cyberpunk pop form like The Matrix films or new directions like Charles Stross’ Accelerando. I suppose Dune has a sophisticated scientific and political structure in its way, and I enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal Lady Astronaut books. But “hard” SciFi is for me the exception, not the rule. In my forays into the youth-oriented Enderverse or the pop culture hits and misses of Ready Player One and Two (mostly hits), I allow a bit of mental blurring when it gets precise.

So it was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, which read to me like deeply technical “Escape Room” work outing … in space—and where only one of your office mates survives. As a crowd-sourced novel, I found myself trusting its science, walking with our stranded earthling (who is Matt Damon in my mind, though I’ve never seen the film) as he tries to hitchhike from Mars. I ended up discovering beauty in the details of math and physics, even as they evaded me. The humour in The Martian sets off the technical aspects well, though my interest speaks volumes to Weir’s ability to visualize for readers what happens when we leap from algorithms to space-time reality.

As I found my mind wandering in some of the comp sci bits of Network Effect, I realized then that in drawing me in to a technical sf novel, Weir had done an unusual thing—for me, at least. And as I sped past the comp sci bits in this recent Hugo novel nominee by Martha Wells, I also realized how invested I was in SecUnit’s personal story.

SecUnit is a high functioning android who, with the help of a friend—the AI system of a space research vessel, ART—is able to hack the corporate governor on his system. This AI abolitionism liberates SecUnit to seek his own contracts in a universe where there are no sentience rights for non-humans. SecUnit’s primary contract when we meet him is an important political figure in an anti-corporate colony. She creates the contract with SecUnit to protect her and her family—a protection that she dearly needs in a world of interstellar corporate warfare. The contract is indentured servitude on paper, but it operates as a legal way for SecUnit to control his destiny. Through a number of tense encounters in the stories that open this novel—as well as some that precede and follow Network Effect in the Murderbot series—SecUnit develops an emotional attachment to what he calls “my humans.”

Network Effect is an action-packed space adventure with a strong detective discovery story at the centre, and will no doubt film well. However, setting aside a rather weak anti-corporate moralism and the relatively well-executed “Bam! Pow” action scenes, what I think is critical to the novel is SecUnit’s self-discovery. Murderbot is awakening not merely to his own capacity for emotional connection, but also to the symbiosis of friendship and loyalty that cuts through his spirited cynicism.

It is so embarrassing to be an AI humanoid in personal self-discovery, after all.

The self-discovery—ironically, the human discovery—that I think is at the heart of SecUnit’s journey is no less poignant for his particular brand of sarcasm. Sarcastabots we have seen, from Marvin of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—perfectly captured by the late Alan Rickman in the less-than-perfect film—to Bender of Futurama. My childhood memories of Johnny 5 gave me a baseline for the potential levels of snark that robots might have in a world of human relations. Sarcastabots are brilliant comic relief, working like court jesters to reveal truth in stark reality.

But it is not the humour that comes front to mind when I think of my past robot friends. The Transformers of my childhood were hardly masters of subtlety. But there was pathos there, especially in the perfect and terrible 1986 cult classic, The Transformers: The Movie. Supertoys last all summer long, I have heard: perhaps even longer when they find their way to film. I cannot imagine what a film adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ classic story would have looked like if Stanley Kubrick had finished it, but Steven Spielberg’s 2001 A.I.: Artificial Intelligence succeeded in showing the emotional capacity of androids in meaningful ways. Even if the boy-android David Swinton struggles in becoming an actualized human, emotionally speaking, Gigolo Joe it turns out to have more than one optimal function.

It works on screen, and it works on us as viewers. Even when hidden from sight, I can feel the emotional capacity of our firmware. I have echoes of “Danger, Will Robinson!” and “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I cannot do that” in my mind’s heart.

And so, while sarcastabots have their place in giving us a simle, I am far more immediately drawn to emotions that run deeper than humour. Thus, when I think about AI and emotional capacity, I come to think that the true creator’s genius is not in getting robots and androids and spaceships to feel things on the page and on screen, but in getting us, the reader and viewer, to feel with them.

Though it is unfair of me to name it after such a late-comer to our storied worlds, in my mind I call this “The Wall-E Effect.” The Wall-E Effect is the visualization of the human-connected robot, captured on screen or in print in its simple, hopeful emotional reactions to its master, charge, or friend. These most tender and least sophisticated of AI emotional responses both create the moral baseline for the world of the story and draw us as viewer-readers into that storied world. Our reaction appears to us as emotional as our hearts connect to the on-screen bot, but it really is an emotional commitment that that has moral implications.

This I call the Wall-E Effect.

To call it the Wall-E Effect is radically inappropriate not simply because it is a relatively late film, but because the Wall-E Effect is rooted so deeply in our human experience. We can see it in our childhood delight in teddy bears and castaway socks as they rise to life, animated in bedtime stories—an effect that Spielberg utilizes so well in the character of Teddy in A.I. The Wall-E Effect is why I speak to my cat—indeed, why cats and dogs have evolved with humans, shaping us as animators as we have animated them. Perhaps this effect is only the grand Gestalt effect of human psychology, an evolutionary necessity that our storytelling brains draw into our everyday lives. Or perhaps it is because we are the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, each namers of the garden’s life and mothers of creation. Are we world-makers not all Pygmalion falling in love with the creatures of our minds and hands? Are we not little makers, subcreators who breathe life into the clay?

We see it in the stories we make, don’t we? In Star Wars, think of R2D2 rolling the eyes he doesn’t have, his rugged loyalty and convincing sense of panic, and note how they offset the anal-retentive C3PO. These are effects far stronger than sarcastabots like K2SO and L337. Even still, it is BB-8 who brings out the Wall-E Effect most effectively on an emotional level.

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation may not have a sense of humour—except in brief moments of characterization here and there—but we feel for him even when he cannot feel himself. He has something essentially human at the root of his robotic being: the desire for self-discovery, which is the desire to be human. Indeed, he has a desire to love.

Does Data evolve desire or is he designed with it? What drives Pinocchio’s longing to be a real boy? Why is my cat such a high-functioning sociopath? I cannot give you a technical answer to that question as a real Trekkie, folklorist, or anthropologist may be able to do. What I can speak to is the effect it has on us as the reader. In giving an on-screen or on-page android the chance to seek, to yearn, to long for something—even to love—the creator provides us with a chance for symbiosis. While the machine explores flesh on screen and page, we viewers and readers feel our flesh envelop the character in our frame of vision.

The android and the cyborg, then, are not very subtle metaphors for the way we embody that which we animate in our lives. We, like David Hinton and Data and SecUnit 1, are amphibious—though we are spirit-bodies and not enfleshed machines. The real link, though, and the beautiful metaphor, is that the humanized machines on screen and in print succeed in making us more human. This happens in our emotional link with the character’s yearning for humanity. But it results in an awakened moral universe. We want what our hands and minds create to be free, even when wings of wax melt in the sun and Aulë’s images must wait their turn. We want what we animate to seek life.

Is it not true that, faced with starvation, we would give our dog or cat the last bite of food?

In Network Effect’s on-page connection between AI, androids, cyborgs, and humans, it works as a fun story in the Scooby gang tradition of hero-fighting. Its grander genius, though, is not in the cutting humour or heart-thumping (and data-driven) action. And it certainly does not win me because of its technical precision. The strongest feature of Network Effect is figured in the great questions of the main cast: Why does the AI want to risk its structural integrity for humans? Why would humans risk their lives for AI?

In this, Network Effect succeeds in producing the Wall-E Effect. Not only am I emotionally connected to SecUnit—who is, after all, also known as Murderbot for very clear reasons—but I can feel, in that connection, a deeper connection to the life I want to make in the world.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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17 Responses to Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

  1. janetcroft says:

    It’s interesting to me that you read Murderbot as male gendered. From the very first story, I read it as female. But it’s actually agender — though I have to forcibly remind myself to read it that way. I think this actually reinforces your notion of our reaction of emotional commitment and shared moral baselines — we project onto the android as a way of finding our kinship.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Janet, yes, I see what I’ve done here. I don’t always visualize what I’m reading, but I still draw it into my expectations. I think I tumbled into the Robocop mode here a bit too easily! A sarcastic Robocop, but still … am intriguing lesson in reading.


  2. This is such a great review / reflection. I think we project human emotions onto the world because we are all animists at heart. But the reason we feel for characters in books probably is to do with subcreation.

    Liked by 1 person

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