The newTransformers movie has hit the theatres, and the reviews are (not surprisingly) crushing. For a franchise powered by ultra-futuristic robots, the movies are now barely making an impact as they land. It’s almost difficult to remember the coming-of-age charm that made the first movie a success. Perhaps some of the clunking derives from a flaw in the robots themselves: the giant toy-inspired Transformers are all novelty and, in Michael Bay’s hands at least, lack the necessary spark of humanity to inspire. So if the Hollywood blockbuster advertisements have left you wishing for a robot story with, well, actual story, save the money from the Imax ticket and try one of these instead. Many of them envision a less rosy (and more realistic) view of technology, posthumans and our future—a future that is more likely to be challenged by our own technical advances than the invasion of quarreling robots from outer space.
1. Skinned, Robin Wasserman
Robin Wasserman’s Skinned trilogy is perhaps more about cyborgs than robots, but it is precisely this glimmer of humanity that makes the series fascinating. The story follows a girl who, after a near-death experience, is “downloaded” into a new robot body. In a Ghost in the Shell reminiscent existential thread, the question of artificial consciousness and the soul is continually raised alongside tensions of politics and religion that are nowhere to be found in the black and white world of the Transformers.
2. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison
Think the Decepticons are warped? Harlan Ellison’s classic short story is the tale of an artificial intelligence “A.M.” who has arranged the destruction of most of humanity. A.M. kept the last five humans on earth alive to torture, and in the video game the player takes on the roles of those characters in their last struggle for sanity and life.
3. Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
Another young adult series with a touch of cyborg existentialism, Uglies imagines a world where at the age of sixteen humans can be altered into superior bodies of perfect health and strength, complete with near-indestructible skeletons and a strange change of priorities. As the series progresses, the body modifications of the social tribes become even more extreme and the humans underneath are thus even less recognizable.
Who would have thought a robot franchise could make us long for the days of the relative soundness of Terminator’s convoluted time-travel plots? Self-awareness in the realm of artificial intelligence apparently comes with a deep desire to wipe out mankind, even if it requires sending robots back in time to stop events that have already happened. As with the Transformers flicks themselves, it’s best not to overthink it, but at least the acting is several notches up.
5. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
While the film Blade Runner generally needs no introduction, Philip K. Dick’s novel is less read. This is particularly unfortunate as it elaborates on the mechanical creatures that the film barely alludes to, who themselves represent an extreme desire for the organic that emerges as the natural world is mostly destroyed. The robots versus humans tension of the film is decidedly more ambiguous than most science fiction, and even the very humanity
6. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
While Marvin the robot is not at the center of the story—whether the story in question is the book, the BBC miniseries or the film—Hitchhiker’s Guide can offer a perfect antidote to overly cheery, cliché spouting Autobots. Marvin is appealing for the same reason as the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 robots, and offers a level of cynicism decidedly missing from a number of more American franchises.
Unfortunately for the child robot star, A.I. envisions a future where robots are ubiquitous but subservient to mankind. If you found yourself rooting for the Decepticons to take over in Transformers, this is definitely a film suited for the robot sympathizer. A particularly memorable performance by Jude Law as “Gigolo Joe” reminds us why actors are still more emotive than most of their CG counterparts.
8. The Search for WondLa, Tony DiTerlizzi
While this children’s novel bears a strong surface resemblance to The Wizard of Oz, the “tin man” of this world is a robot named Muthr, and the post-apocalypse world probably isn’t something you’d expect to find waiting over the rainbow. Muthr is a surrogate parent, a security device, and a guide in a story which offers a glimpse of some of the less charming consequences our current technology could head towards.
9. X-Men Cartoons + Comics
The Sentinels in the X-Men franchise appeared only briefly in the film franchise, in the much maligned third installment, but throughout the narrative they made for some of the most memorable villains around. Rather like the terminators, the Sentinels are focused on a mission of control and extermination.