In which we host Tansy Rayner Roberts in support of the Mother of Invention Kickstarter, the anthology she is editing with Rivqa Rafael for Twelfth Planet Press.
Why We’re Making Mother of Invention By Tansy Rayner Roberts
For me, it kicked off because of Ex Machina (2015).
This is, by the way, an excellent movie about AI and the future of humanity, told on a closed set, with some very intense performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.
It’s good, but it’s that story again. The story of male scientists wanting to create, understand and possess both the body and the mind of an artificially constructed woman. It doesn’t have to be that story, with that particular gender dynamic, and yet.
We live in a world where robots and/or computer programs can build cars, direct traffic and perform medical procedures, but when it comes to robots that actually look like humans? The priority seems always to be creating wide-eyed, conventionally-pretty, utterly compliant robot girlfriends in real life, as well as in our fictional narratives.
Ex Machina drew a lot of interesting criticism for its perpetuation of the ‘fembot’ trope, such as this piece at Wired, which looks at the history of sexualised female androids in our fiction, and how these stories comment on uncomfortable gender stereotypes while still perpetuating them.
Yes, it’s creepy. Yes, it’s supposed to be creepy. But do we really need this particular story to be told quite so many times, to emphasise something we already know — that the female body has been thoroughly commodified and depersonalised in modern media?
Where are the stories in which the male body is pored over in excruciatingly uncomfortable detail, reduced to “object” in order to examine our culture’s obsession with perfect abs? There’s been some great analysis in the media lately about male body image and objectification – so why can’t we have that kind of issue dealt with in our robot fiction too?
(The answer of course is that we can. Let’s.)
What’s really interesting to me is that the AI/robot plot breakdown of Male Creator and Female-Appearing-Object is just as common in fiction written by women as men.
A classic story of our genre, “No Woman Born,” by C.L. Moore (Astounding 1944), tells the story of Deirdre, a dancer burned in a fire, who is reconstructed as an almost entirely artificial body. The story focuses on two men, Deirdre’s manager and her “creator,” obsessing over whether this version of her is a perfect enough substitution to save her career. Deirdre, meanwhile, develops her own relationship with her new body because she is not an object.
There’s nothing wrong with the trope in itself. The ‘perfect robot woman’ is a fantastic jumping off point to talk about autonomy, body image, feminism, and physical empowerment — even if that isn’t always where those stories take us.
But I started thinking about that other side of this story, and how the creator of artificial life is so often characterised as a man. If we must have robot girlfriend movies, why do they have to be robot girlfriends played by young actresses, built by male scientists played by older male actors?
There are exceptions, of course. The female-voiced AI isn’t always sexualised — the gender of the Machine in Person of Interest is a fascinatingly layered creation, marking the development of the Machine as character and her (ultimately, her) relationships with and reflections of the various squishy humans in her life. The scientist who builds the robots isn’t always male — we have Isaac Asimov’s Susan Calvin, as one classic example.
The AI/robot/living computer isn’t always female. From Frankenstein to Terminator & beyond, the ‘male scientist builds artificial life/violent son’ trope has become as ingrained in our pop culture as the Robot Girlfriend.
It’s believed Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein about her fears and guilt around the biological birthing process, with Dr Frankenstein as a metaphor for her mother who died in childbirth, and his artificially-created Monster as a metaphor for herself. (This is a simplistic but common analysis of the text) How would that story have been different if Dr Frankenstein were a woman?
The more I thought about it, the more I hungered for stories about artificial intelligence where the creator was someone other than the middle-aged, cisgender male robotics professor. That was the seed that eventually grew into Mother of Invention, the anthology I am now editing with Rivqa Rafael for Twelfth Planet Press.
There are dangers and pitfalls in creating a gender-themed anthology. We also don’t want to fall into the trap of gender essentialism — implying there’s only one way to be female, or perpetuating any Them vs. Us gender stereotypes. (We do maintain that the majority of women would definitely include pockets when building robots) It shouldn’t need to be said but we’re gonna say it: trans women are women.
We also want to be as inclusive as possible to under-represented authors and characters. Despite our focus on women as creators of AI, we are excited to take on stories that challenge the very idea of what gender means, and what it could mean in the future. Just because computers work in 1s and 0s doesn’t mean we have to conform to the binary.
We have taken on advice and worked on our specs to be as inclusive as we can, but we know there’s always room for improvement, and we’re willing to listen.
The word ‘mother is loaded with preconceptions and baggage, but that’s a big part of why we wanted to use it in our title. There’s no one ‘right’ way to be a mother, or a parent. There’s no one ‘right’ way to write stories. And there’s definitely no one ‘right’ way to build Artificial Intelligence, as long as you remember to program them not to exterminate all life on this planet.
You can pledge your support to our Kickstarter now. Twelfth Planet Press are offering a bunch of fun rewards on top of the book itself including specially created tea, jam mugs, biscuits, hand-crafted items and more. Our latest new reward tier features hand-stitched “robots are feminists” bookmarks, and our first 250 backers will all receive a free e-copy of Rosaleen Love’s The Total Devotion Machine, a classic feminist SF collection from one of Australian’s masters of the genre.
We’re so looking forward to building this anthology, and seeing it take shape. Feminist robot shenanigans for the win! Gender-defying artificial intelligences, bring it!
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian author of SFF & crime fiction. She has won the Hugo twice: for Best Fan Writer and as co-host of the legendary feminist SF podcast, Galactic Suburbia. She recently co-edited the anthology Cranky Ladies of History.
Twelfth Planet Press, the publisher behind Mother of Invention, is a boutique small press with a reputation for diverse, challenging science fiction works including the anthologies Kaleidoscope & Defying Doomsday, and non-fiction works such as Letters to Tiptree and the upcoming Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler.