The meaningful distinctions between human and android are fading. But while science class won’t prepare us for the resulting moral questions, English class can. Particularly if students study books like Lain Tanner’s Ice Breaker, a new book about a boatload of mechanical refugees hiding from the humans who wish to wipe them out. Or Brian Falkner’s ingenious thriller Brainjack, in which a self-aware computer virus uses neuro-headsets to infect human brains.
I haven’t heard of either of those. I’m trying to think of robot related books I read in my youth but at the moment all I can think of are movies based on stories. A.I. also known as Supertoys Last all Summer Long by Brian Aldiss and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. And Kryten, from Red Dwarf. The series was eventually serialized into four books by the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, all of which I own.
Kryten and Dave discuss Silicon Heaven: The afterlife of all electronic appliances when they die. The concept is used to keep robots, many of which are stronger and more intelligent than their masters, from rebelling. A belief chip is installed in robots to ensure that they will believe they will go to Silicon Heaven after a life of servitude to humans.
There’s some ethics right there. Is it fair to create a myth just to keep the underclass happy and accepting of their eventual fate? In this particular episode Kryten has learned that an improved android replacement is coming and he’s to be shut down. Lister helps him understand how unfair that is. Kryten succeeds in wrecking the replacement by telling it there is no silicon heaven. It’s Kryten’s first big lie as he still believes the place exists and won’t be swayed by Lister’s logic.
The next season, Lister gives Kryten some pointers on how to become a better liar and thus more like a human, something Kryten craves. There’s also an episode in the series where Kryten gets exactly what he wishes for – a human body – and has to deal with how that feels and changes who he is, and not for the better. Some of the show winds up pretty dated by this point but the writing was top notch and the topics explored by the characters could be pretty deep sometimes. I still pull out the first six in the series to watch on a regular basis.
Back to Heath:
The point of fiction is to wrap a philosophical problem in a story – to breathe life into it with quirky characters and spooky settings and, ideally, flash grenades. The point is not just to make the reader understand, but the make them feel. And just like with the robots, it’s feeling that makes you worth something.
And if you can empathize with the characters in a story and feel what they’re feeling, that same connectedness can also be applied toward real people and probably should be done more thoughtfully by everyone. Apathy may be a little easier than empathy and bullying doesn’t require the same commitments that caring does. But if you can cry because your favourite character met a bad end in the book, there’s probably hope for you.