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Here in Louisville Kentucky we have a local alternative paper that is fun to read. Most of the time I go straight to the back pages where there is a section called ‘News of the Weird’. One of the mini-articles this month was about Aibo funerals in Japan. Aibos are robotic dogs equipped with a microphone and speakers so that they can respond to simple commands. They also lift their legs to mime peeing.
These robot dogs were produced for seven years by Sony, which sold 150,000 of them. In 2006 Sony stopped producing them but would fix a dog when a part broke down or find someone who could. As dogs were given up for dead they could become ‘organ donors’ and be plundered for spare parts. In Japan, however, this plundering could only begin after a Buddhist priest said a prayer to release the spirit from its metal carcass.
Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian that “The funerals of Sony’s Aibo dogs that will never work again are a perfectly religious act.” It is certainly a human act, to love and to mourn that which is loved.
This brings up several questions in my mind: What is life? What is death? How will we treat robots that are loved? How will we dispose of robots? Will we install robots with life-like qualities? Should we install robots with life-like qualities?
Andrew Brown says, “This isn’t just a story about Japan. It’s really about the question of what makes things alive to us. The answer is surely that anything that can die seems alive, and anything that seems alive will sometime die.” If robots simply work according to mechanical and chemical laws, but so far as we can tell, that is all that we are as well.
I guess this topic stuck with me because my border collie died a couple of months ago. She was not a robot dog but rather a creature of chemical laws. She slept at the foot of my bed for a decade and woke me up if something was amiss at night. I was surprised at how deeply I grieved for her – an animal – when she got cancer and had to be ‘put to sleep’. Daisy was a good dog, and a loyal companion. Aibo owners feel the same way about their robot dogs I’m sure.
Household robots acquiring ‘souls’ – Turing status – is scary enough and is surely the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Pinocchio eventually stopped being a puppet and became a ‘real boy’ because someone truly loved him. Why don’t we love washing machines? Is there room in the universe for humans to love robots and to grieve for them when their parts are obsolete?
On a larger scale, how is death handled in science fiction and fantasy? There seem to be many examples in literary history.
For instance, there is reincarnation as shown in Dracula. When Dracula’s love is tricked by his enemies and commits suicide, Dracula decides to live long enough to see her reincarnated – no matter what it takes to stay alive. Yes, as written by Bram Stoker originally, Dracula wasn’t about blood and death and gore, rather it was about love and loss and reincarnation. It was an answer to questions about life and death and loss.
There can obviously be the hero’s death – most recently SPOILER ALERT when Han Solo offers his friendship to his wayward son only to be stabbed through the heart. The hero’s death usually occurs when they put themselves out on a limb, trying to achieve the greater good. This scene is reminiscent of another scene 38 years ago between Obi Won and Darth Vader.
Of course you can die by having your ship blown apart in battle only to show up later because you were whisked away at the last moment by a transporter beam. Star Trek used this tactic a lot. “Scotty! Have you got him? Scotty! What’s going on down there?!” This is combination of the two deaths above. This death is almost unfair. In the Westerns the good guy remained dead below the pile of stones. Over was Over and dead was dead.
There is the ever popular Storm Trooper death where, faces hidden below helmets, hundreds of clones are offed by lasers in machine-gun like precision.
How many more ways to die in a science fiction story can you name?
But enough of death: here are stories brought to life by authors and delivered to you via the Muse herself. Enjoy!
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