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J.P. Telotte, Robot Ecology and the Science Fiction Film (Routledge, 2016, 120pp, £15)

Reviewed by Anna Kurowicka (Polish Academy of Sciences)


J.P. Telotte’s brief study is not intended as a thorough overview of robots in science fiction film, nor is it a detailed history of the trope (for that, see Telotte’s Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film [1995]). Instead, he divides the historical trajectory of the robot into three distinct stages: 1930s-1950s, when robots are seen as effective and controllable technological tools to be used by humans; 1950s-1970s, when various incarnations of Robby from Forbidden Planet (1956) symbolize the mistrust people feel towards less predicable and docile robots with independent artificial brains; 1970s to now, when the human-like appearance of robots, androids and cyborgs raises anxieties about the blurred line between human and machine. The result is a convincing and clear argument about what the various incarnations of robots in popular culture reveal about human attitudes to technology and the condition of humanity at a given time.

The ‘ecology’ in the title signals the book’s perspective on robots, one that is not limited to science fiction as a genre or even film as a medium. Telotte’s ambition is to place robots in a broad multi-media, multi-genre context to do justice to the prevalence of the trope. The figure of the robot is treated as a meme, whose three major traits guide the author’s exploration: longevity, referring to the meme’s strength over time; fecundity, its ability to spawn somewhat altered versions of itself; and copying-fidelity, that is the ‘stickiness’ of one central idea that ensures the meme’s legibility across these permutations.

The concept of a meme, along with the three traits that ensure its power, is borrowed from Richard Dawkins. This theoretical framework allows Telotte to centre the visual representation of the robot, and to include various texts created around these films, such as a series of stills portraying erotically-charged human-robot interaction from Dancing Lady (1933) that never made it to the movie, toys using the image of Robby the Robot or ads for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-9). The notion of ecology also refers to a broader socio-economic context in which the science fiction imagery of robots appears and circulates.

One fascinating example of that is Telotte’s claim that one reason for the longevity and omnipresence of Robby as a cultural icon was the cost of production of the robot as a prop: built by the studio with one property in mind, it was used in later productions as well since it was easily available for ‘recycling’ on the studio lot. The greatest outcome of employing robot ecology as the book’s guiding principle is that it places cultural texts within their economic and social landscape, offering the reader a view of robots that is more holistic than a more limited analysis of cultural representation.

Ecology may serve as a central concept of the book, but it is really Telotte’s discussion of the changing meanings of robot as a figure over time that binds the book together and constitutes its most interesting contribution to scholarly discussions. The robots of the 1930s-1950s are relatively simple, non-threatening machines, one element of a rather bright utopian technological future awaiting human civilization.  Forbidden Planet introduces a robot with a synthetic intelligence (although constrained by Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics). At the same time, Robby and other robots of the era take on a number of different roles and moods depending upon the genre they appear in: they can function as duplicitous enemies in action-adventure stories and as comic relief in television programmes. The level of complexity ascribed to robots’ minds and emotions increases in the last period discussed by Telotte. Contemporary robots, androids, cyborgs and other mechanical beings embody an uncanny similarity to human beings, both internally and externally.

In his analysis of the franchises built around The Terminator, Alien and Ghost in the Shell, Telotte focuses on the the unease evoked by their slipperiness, especially between the organic and the mechanical. While I enjoyed Telotte’s readings, I also appreciated his admission that it is only one of the many possible stories to be told, especially considering the fact that categories of gender and race, previously used in academic work on robots and cyborgs in science fiction to great result, do not play a significant role in Telotte’s analysis.

For readers already interested in and familiar with the robot as a trope, this book may seem a bit like a retread of a familiar territory. At the same time, the book is a great contribution to the academic discussion of the topic because it is well-aware of its (limited) scope. Its focus on one possible trajectory of the meme, employment of the concept of ecology, and the clear narrative of the changing role of robots in the Western cultural imagination all make it a satisfying read. The mastery with which Telotte brings together various threads proves that there is nothing accidental about his choice of examples. The fact that most of them are popular texts, familiar to mainstream audiences, adds to the broad appeal of the book. Robot Ecology would also make a great source for undergraduate level courses investigating sf tropes or the cultural history of technology, as each chapter presents its central argument in a clear and concise manner. The chapters come together to create an overarching narrative, but they can also easily function as separate pieces, each dealing with a specific incarnation of a robot. These qualities, I believe, make the book a valuable addition to the critical literature on one of the most important figures in science fiction and cultural imagination.