I ran across this article on NPR today, as people are pondering what it means to have a robot contestant on Jeopardy! and how that taps into what appears to be a “new myth” of the Robot Uprising. I sat there thinking, this isn’t a new myth? It’s composite pieces of several mythologies woven together in a way that taps into our modern sensibilities and fears. Let’s take a look at some of the pieces and see what happens.
Crafted Objects Awakening
If you think about it, all of mythology is about things that were crafted gaining a life of their own. The story of Genesis is that all of humanity was formed out of clay and God breathed life into us. Hesiod tells the same in the story of Deucalion throwing stones over his shoulder and humans springing up. But the most direct correlation to a human crafted object awakening is the myth of the Golem. The Golem builds directly onto the Genesis myth, and takes it a step further where a human creator fashions new life from clay. The creature is activated, and moves around, and may even look like a human being. But he is nothing but dust in the end, as are we all. There is really very little difference between a Golem, Pinocchio, and a Terminator. They are all crafted beings who awaken and have plans of their own.
Machines Lead Us To Our Demise
The father of invention, Daedalus, is the prime example of how machines can both save and destroy us. We only have to look to the tragic death of Icarus to realize that. But let’s start with an invention that started the tragedy in the first place: The Bull Suit. Queen Pasiphae was enamoured of a particular bull in her husband’s stable. Being the kind of woman she was she asked Daedalus to craft a mechanism by which the Bull would be able to mate with her. He did, she did, and blam she got pregnant with the Minotaur. So King Minos, shamed and abhorred asked Daedalus to craft an unbeatable maze to put the creature in so that no one would ever see the shame that his wife had brought on them. So Daedalus crafted the labyrinth. And Minos, for good measure, decided that, since Daedalus and his son Icarus were both in the know about the horror that was the Minotaur, the best course of action would be to throw them into the labyrinth first and block the only escape. Daedalus, being crafty, gathered up all of the feathers from the birds that the Minotaur had been eating and some wax, from who knows where and made some kickass wings. So Daedalus and Icarus flew out of the Labyrinth, but Icarus, taken with the experience of flying just kept going higher and higher until the sun began to melt his wings and he fell, unable to control his descent, and crashed into the Icarian Sea.
Each machine in the story of Daedalus leads to further and further problems. However, it was the humans though who put them to use, and used them in twisted ways that brought about their misfortunes. HAL is the perfect example of this. HAL was meant to run the space station in 2001, but because it had a conflicting piece of programming it destroyed everyone aboard the ship except Dave. The programmer thought that this was the right course of action, but he never unstood the consequences of what this might have done to the people aboard the ship.
Sarah Connor and Cassandra
Often times there are those who know that the robot uprising is coming. The doomsayers and prophets, mad women who try in vain to tell people that they know disaster is around the corner, only to be dismissed by those who seem to know better. The prime mythic example of this character is Cassandra. Daughter of Priam and Hecuba, King and Queen of Troy, was beloved by Apollo. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, as he did with many women through his temple at Delphi. However, she did not return his love and became cursed. She would always speak the truth, and no one would believe her. Cassandra saw the coming destruction of Troy. She knew that the Greeks would raze the city to the ground, and she tried to tell everyone. Her own mother and father dismissed her thinking she was overcome with emotion and sent her away. Even on the fateful evening when they brought the Horse into the gates of the city she wailed and cried and tried to stop them. But all to know avail. The Greeks poured through the city, murdering and pillaging the city to bring Helen back to Menelaus. In the Robot Uprising myth Sarah Connor is our Cassandra. In T2, we see that she has been committed to an asylum for trying to espouse these ridiculous fantasies about the killing machines from the future. No one in their right mind would believe such a thing. But the robots, like the Greeks, do come. The psychiatrist who has been monitoring Sarah all these many years, who separated her from her son (the chosen one), comes face to face with a Terminator in his very hospital.
The Attack of the Other
This one is almost too easy. Mythology is built on succession, often times from invasions of outsiders. The Irish myths and legends talk of the Fir Bolg being invaded by the Tuatha de Danaan, then the Danaan being invaded by the Milesians. Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane looked at how tribal societies develop mythologies of monsters outside the realm of the village. The entire rest of the world becomes an unknown. In contemporary society we see this othering in xenophobia toward foreign cultures, but the reality is that most of the rest of the world is basically a known quantity. There are really only two areas where human minds can’t make sense: the far reaches of space, and the minds of artificial life forms. Stories of alien invasions like War of the Worlds are tapping into the same vein as The Terminator. This is a mind that we cannot understand. All that we know is that it seeks to destroy us and our way of living. Part of the insidiousness of the new Battlestar Galactica series was that the Cylons were nearly indistinguishable from humans. In a world where you cannot distinguish The Other from your own people the threat is all the more dangerous (mythically speaking).
Robot Uprising as Class Warfare
The fear of the robot uprising is that a creature we have made decides that we must be destroyed. More than anything this sounds to me like fear of a class struggle. Robots, built to be servants to humans and do the work we have since decided no longer needs to be done with human hands, decide to rise up against their masters. This is really the story of the slave revolt. SkyNet is Spartacus, leading a long and bloody war against those who sought to oppress him or to casually end his life. Spartacus, a trained gladiator, was an actual person, not a myth. He led a slave revolt across the Roman Empire to quash the rule of the decadent Roman elite who would use people as property and sport. These types of turnovers in society were extremely common. The modern vestiges of slave revolts now are probably union strikes.
Though the story of the uprising also speaks to another mythic tendency, the overthrow of the Gods. In the Theogony we learn about the different generations of the gods, from the primal forces, to the Titans, to the Olympians. The children of each generation, rising up against the former generation and putting an end to barbaric practices. When we create robots, in a sense we become Gods ourselves. Our creations are stronger, smarter, more powerful than we could ever be. We fear that we will be cut down like the Titans, and a new Olympus will rise in our place.
With the robot uprising comes the complete collapse of civilization. Humanity is destroyed or hunted down to near extinction and the world becomes a desolate wasteland of metal and debris. Annihilation myths are certainly nothing new. The flood in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ragnarok, the ravage of war in the Revelation of John, the list goes on and on. Humans have survived eons on this world, and as evolutionary being we have been working our way through all sorts of environmental and social hells. But our biggest fear, the fear of death, is always there. We know that we are mortal and we fear for ourselves being erased from existence. Sometimes the myth is an asteroid creating a toxic cloud, somtimes it’s an ice age or a flood, and sometimes it is a hell of our own making.