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Have you ever read Rossum’s Universal Robots?  It is a Czech play from 1921 which introduced the word “robot” to describe a synthetic/machine person manufactured through a state-of-the-art process.  Since the play anteceded the great glut of mid-twentieth century sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies, it does not partake of their familiar narratives of futurism and high adventure, but rather is a brooding meditation on class, alienation, industrialization, and the post-human world.  Rossum’s Universal Robots treats its subject with the solemn dark intensity which Mary Shelley and Kafka brought to these same questions about what it means to be human and to try to pass one’s fundamental values on to one’s offspring.   

I am not asking this question out of idle curiosity (although I am curious if anyone read RUR), but rather as a means for reintroducing our old friend–and occasional guest blogger–Daniel Claymore.  Claymore, an LA-based writer & director, has just published Requiem for a Good Machine, his own science-fiction work about robots replacing humankind.  In Claymore’s sparkling yet chilly future megalopolis, Mirabilis, wise robot masters have built and maintain a perfect paradise habitat for humankind…because natural humans are failing and going extinct.  Some unknown pathology has sapped organic people of their well-known drive to multiply and gobble up all available resources.  The sad spectacle of hauntingly familiar near-future humans barely stumbling through the forms in a world which has lost its purpose makes up the backdrop of Claymore’s series.  But don’t worry, this isn’t Rossum’s Universal Robots and humankind isn’t quite out of the game yet…the protagonist, Leo Song, is a classic gumshoe who will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of a mystery.  And there are mysteries aplenty in Claymore’s novel.

As a human cop in a world where robots solve 99% of all crimes within instants (and make up all the top echelons on the police force—and every other authority-wielding body), Song has his work cut out for him trying to unravel a string of gruesome murders which the robots have not solved.  Also, even if the robot masters do not know who or what is committing these ghastly crimes, they certainly know a lot of things which they aren’t telling Officer Song. 

Like a Dashiell Hammett sleuth, Song must bend all the rules and take terrifying risks to figure out what is going on (his sad oxygen gun is painful but not-very-effective to humans and does nothing at all to robots).  Pursuing this case will take him to the inner sanctum of artificial intelligence, and out to the gritty edges of Mirabilis where the robots haven’t applied any glitter (and where non-conformist humans and trans-humans still have their own agendas).

The most compelling part of Claymore’s work deals with the robots themselves.  At first these characters seem like utterly inhuman constructs of tubes, wires, and abstract shapes.  Yet as we get to know them through Song’s eyes, their humanity starts to become apparent to us (in both good ways and bad).  Likewise, the question of who ripped apart an expectant young mother starts to seem like a subset of the larger questions about what is going on behind the scenes in Mirabilis and how humankind and the robots have gotten to this place to begin with.     

Claymore’s work is a taut thriller which will delight all lovers of action and mystery.  However, the deeper roots of this work tunnel down into flintier bedrock. The dark lights of Mirabilis reflect today’s world of climate crisis, political stalemate, and ever-quickening waves of future shock.  Above all else, the characters’ anomie, loneliness, and meaningless “make-work” jobs reflect the recent pandemic and the pointless nature of our empty economy.   

If Karel Čapek stepped out of 1921 into today, he would not recognize anything, yet he would recognize everything.  The same human drives and industrial alienation shape a world where technology grows tantalizingly close to consciousness. Daniel Claymore has reached into this morass and pulled out a glistening, squirming mass of naked wires and raw emotions which he throws in your face.  You’re going to love Requiem for a Good Machine, but even if you don’t, the algorithms will think you did!

Hmm…uh oh

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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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The Black Dragon Gong Gong and the Serpent Goddess Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength.  He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster.  In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell).  Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things.  Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork.  Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor.  In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu.

Gong Gong hurls himself into Mount Buzhou

Together Gong Gong and Xiangliu brought about great destruction in the world.  The tumult they unleashed killed countless people.  But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven.  They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south, a mighty swordsman who fought mounted on the back of his magic tiger.  Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright.  Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven.  Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky.  The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse.   Flood and fire swept earth.  Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven

With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward.  She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis.  Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them.  With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven.  In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world.  Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect.  The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons.  Even the North star was jarred from true north.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven (a modern interpretation)

Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth.  The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind.  It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within.  In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are 40 major characters and more than four hundred minor ones in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages).  The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos.  From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines.  The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien.  And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth.  Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone.  He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw.   Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life.   I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is.  I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.

The Penguin version as elegantly translated by David Hawke

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