I’m fascinated by tropes in storytelling, and so I’ve decided to write a series of posts examining different tropes within Science Fiction and Fantasy. What is a trope? For the purpose of this blog series, a trope is a concept, whether a character type, setting, or plot element, that is easily recognized by the reader. Because a trope is instantly familiar to the audience, it works as an expositional shortcut for the author.
Every genre has its tropes, from the brooding teenage heroes in YA fiction to the naughty billionaire bad-boys in romance. Now, I write in Speculative Fiction, specifically, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and due to the imagination free-for-all that characterizes this genre, there is a gloriously mind-boggling array of tropes. Since my current (and first!) series deals with cyborgs and artificial intelligence, I thought I would look at a trope I am personally fascinated with and explore in my writing: I (Love You) Robot, the trope of a human being having a romantic (and often sexual) relationship with a robot.
EXAMPLES IN LITERATURE
Popular examples of the I (Love You) Robot trope in literature include
- Silver Metal Lover (Tanith Lee). Neglected, wealthy teenager Jane finds love living rough with robot-musician Silver.
- He, She, and It /Body of Glass (Marge Piercy). Protagonist Shira develops a sexual relationship with Yod, the robot she was tasked with socializing.
- Forward the Foundation (Isaac Asimov). An elderly Hari Sheldon faces his mortality with his android wife, Dors.
- The Mad Scientist’s Daughter (Cassandra Rose Clark): As she becomes a young woman, Kat enters into a relationship with her robot-tutor, Finn
- Idoru (William Gibson) Rockstar Rez wants to marry android Rei Toei, much to the concern of those around him.
- A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Becky Chambers). Lovey, the AI of an interstellar ship and her mechanic, Jenks, are in love.
There are common themes explored in the I (Love You) Robot trope, all of which deal with the capacity of one or both parties to love:
- Can a robot actually love? Or is it just their programming?
- Can a human truly love a robot? Or is it merely lust or the love we feel for a prized object?
- In a romantic relationship between a human and a robot, is it necessary for both of them to love? Or can one of them love enough for both?
- Can we truly love something if we believe or know it won’t love us back? And if so, why? Why would we willingly endure unrequited love?
- In a relationship where there is no possibility of physical consummation, does it matter? Can you have romantic love without touch?
- Do we choose to love, or is it just the way we’re programmed? And if so, does it make our love any different or more real than that of a robot?
COMMON PLOT PROGRESSION
The I (Love You) Robot trope often progresses with a human being having a non-romantic relationship with a robot, whether professional, educational, or physical, which then evolves as the human realizes they have emotional, romantic feelings towards the robot and the sentiment is returned. After this revelation, the thematic questions above are asked and answered, the resolution of which usually involves the robot’s perceived level of sentience.
WHY DOES THIS TROPE EXIST?
The I (Love You) Robot trope is perhaps a response to the paradoxical nature of our culture, in which our relationship with technology is increasingly both isolationist and intimate and tends to supplant the communication we would normally have with other human beings.
Humans also like to think of their love as being transformative, almost magical, and what greater love story (or arrogance) could be conceived of than our love transcending another being above the sum of its parts to experience one of the fundamentals of life that humans prize the most? And of course, the I (Love You) Robot trope appeals to the more insecure and selfish aspects of human nature: there is a level of comfort in loving a being who, by the nature of its own programming, would never betray you.
There is also a darker implication to this trope, and that is the fetishization and sexual objectification of robots. It centers on our ability to create a being who looks and acts human, but being a machine, does not require the same consideration or rights in terms of consent. In this case, the trope tries to legitimize behavior that decent human beings would never consider acceptable against each other, behavior which we have fought in the past and indeed are still fighting against. But, like with the capacity for love, the acceptance of this aspect of the trope depends on the perception of the robot’s sentience.
WHY THIS TROPE CAN BE BAD
Given the implications of rights and consent as mentioned above, the I (Love You) Robot trope gives an outlet to those darker impulses and behaviors we deem unacceptable in our own culture (at least publicly). The acceptance and legitimization of these behaviors may be the top of a slippery moral slope that humanity has only been partially successful in clawing its way up.
WHY THIS TROPE CAN BE GOOD
On the other hand, this trope demonstrates the innate capacity of the human heart to love despite fundamental differences. It also makes us question what it means to be human, and why it matters.
What do you think of the I (Love You) Robot trope? Do you think you could love a robot?