A new exhibition of androids, cyborgs and robots will bring some of the stars of science fiction to Palace Green Library from Saturday 23rd November. As well as presenting life-size replicas from the big screen, the exhibition will also demonstrate how literature has influenced our understanding of our humanoid doubles.
ROBOT! brings together toys, comics, books and film props to highlight how we have long been fascinated by robots, whether as productive helpers for humans or as a dystopian threat to our very existence. Although today we are perhaps most familiar with robots as they appear in cinema, often in apocalyptic movies, robots have their origins in literature. Indeed, the word “robot” was first coined by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, an early edition of which will be on display in the exhibition.
Literature has provided older narratives that precede the advent of robotic technology, but which have then been reimagined for the new age. ROBOT! features a life-size replica of Robby the Robot, from the influential 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. This film was loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. In the original, remarkable powers allowed the sorcerer, Prospero, to tame the spirit, Ariel, to assist him. In updating the play for the screen, Forbidden Planet suggests that technology presents a different and more comprehensible source of power to magic: the spirit Ariel is turned into the mechanical Robby, a robot butler able to satisfy every need of its human master. Whereas Shakespeare’s play treats Ariel as a somewhat sinister character, Forbidden Planet presents the utopian idea of technology turned to benign ends.
However, robots are perhaps best-remembered for the moments when they turn against humans. As the exhibition shows, comic books have thrilled readers with their destructive mechanoids and artificial intelligence. As Hollywood developed better special effects, these books could be brought to life for a new generation. For example, ROBOT! allows you to track the development of Iron Man from a Marvel comic book character whose adventures resonated with Cold War anxieties, to the movies of the 2000s which react to the concerns of contemporary terrorism. The exhibition brings you face-to-face with a life-size replica of the movie icon.
As the changing representation of Iron Man shows, robots invite us to reflect on what it means to be human, and our ethics and values. Along this line, the works of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov have been among the most influential in asking us to consider how robots and humans might relate to each other, and tell us more about ourselves in the process. His three laws of robotics supposedly ensure that no robot could harm a human. However, as other writers and filmmakers have realised, the laws have numerous get-out clauses and possible conflicts. Later science fiction films such as I, Robot (based on an Asimov story) or Blade Runner have engaged with Asimov’s works to question what it means to think like a human, and to ask us to ponder whether androids who look slightly different to ourselves should be treated with the same rights and responsibilities.
ROBOT! has been designed in a collaboration between Palace Green Library and the Department of English Studies, among others, not only to bring robots to life but also to show how these works of the imagination can make us think about ourselves. If ROBOT! has inspired you, we invite you to share your own suggestions for literary robots, or to take part in our Data Poll on this website.
ROBOT! runs from 23rd November 2013 to 27th April 2014. For more information about admission and opening times, visit the Palace Green Library website. Various events, lectures, and readings will accompany the exhibition over the next few months; follow READ or subscribe to our English Events newsletter to keep track.