Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Science fiction, robots, worse than worse, and a telegram

with 18 comments

Bust of Karel Čapek, Chyše Castle

Image via Wikipedia

I met a robot at the weekend; it opened my eyes to a fiction genre I’ve never previously bothered with. I also discovered the derivation of the word ‘robot’; came across a thought-provoking quote; and read an equally thought-provoking telegram that also made me laugh. But by that time I was at the ballet reading extracts from my programme to a complete stranger dressed in a linen suit who was a) too lazy to find his glasses and b) obviously too tight to buy his own programme. I digress.       

So, this robot. It was on display at the British Library’s latest exhibition, Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it. I realised I may have been cavalier in my judgement of science fiction when the robot (after I accidentally woke it up) read out an extract from C. L. Moore’s 1944 story, No Woman Born. The lyricism of the prose is all the more arresting when you consider that it is describing a bald, metallic robotic body, which houses the brain of a dead actress:       

She had…a very beautifully shaped head—a bare, golden skull. She turned it a little, gracefully upon her neck of metal, and he saw that the artist who shaped it had given her the most delicate suggestion of cheekbones, narrowing in the blankness below the mask to the hint of a human face. Not too much. Just enough so that when the head turned you saw by its modelling that it had moved, lending perspective and foreshortening to the expressionless golden helmet.       

… she wove the intricacies of her serpentine dance, leisurely and yet with such hypnotic effect that the air seemed full of looping rhythms, as if her long, tapering limbs had left their own replicas hanging upon the air and fading only slowly as she moved away.       

Robots are born       

At the exhibition, I learnt that Karel Čapek (1890-1938) is credited with inventing the word ‘robot’ (although he later explained that his brother had thought of it first). Čapek used the word in his 1921 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) to describe artificial people created as slaves. It is based on the Czech word ‘robota’, literally meaning ‘serf labour’ and figuratively meaning ‘drudgery or hard work’. Within months of the play’s first performance in the UK, the word ‘robot’ was being used to describe workers who were treated as machines. 

Helena: Why … why … why don’t you make them happier? 

Hallemeier: We couldn’t do that, they’re only robots after all.  They’ve got no will of their own.  No passions.  No hopes.  No soul. 

Helena: And no love and no courage? 

Hallemeier: Well of course they don’t feel love.  Robots don’t love anything, not even themselves.   And courage?  I’m not so sure about that; a couple of times, not very often, mind,  they have shown some resistance … 

Helena: What? 


What could be worse than worse?       

Also spotted at the exhibition:       

“Hell of a world we live in, huh? … But it could be worse, huh?”
“That’s right,” I said, “or even worse, it could be perfect.”

 William Gibson, Burning Chrome       

Here are some more excellent Gibson quotes. Gibson has been described as the Raymond Chandler of science fiction.   

A great telegram       

I was also lucky enough to see three short ballets at the beautiful Royal Opera House in Convent Garden. One of these was Scènes de Ballet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton and inspired by a piece of Igor Stravinsky music he heard on the radio while having a bath. The music had originally been commissioned by the American impresario Billy Rose for a 1944 revue, The Seven Lively Arts. After its first performance, Rose cabled Stravinsky:       


Stravinsky telegraphed back (without batting an eyelid, I like to think):       


Oh, and the mysterious stranger in the expensive linen suit? Reader, I married him. 



18 Responses

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  1. Robots, and no mentions of Isaac Asimov? Sacrilege.

    As penance, see any or all of the following:-

    I, Robot (1950)
    The Rest of the Robots (1964)
    Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robots (1966)
    The Complete Robot (1982)
    The Robot Collection (omnibus) (1983)
    Robot Dreams (1986)
    The Robot Novels (omnibus) (1988)
    Robot Visions (1990)


    30/05/2011 at 5:09 pm

    • Hi, Ron! Thanks for that list. I think you mentioned your interest in science fiction before. As noted in the post, I’m guilty of not taking a closer look much sooner. Yes, Asimov — he who created the laws of robotics (also highlighted at the exhibition):

      1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
      2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
      3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

      I seem to remember that the exhibition quoted at least one more law. Perhaps other writers, or Asimov himself, added to the list at a later date?

      Thanks again, Ron. Lovely bank holiday weather we’re having.


      30/05/2011 at 5:20 pm

      • There will, always and forever, as created by the Blessed Isaac, only be Three Laws of Robotics.

        Or so I thought before I went to have a look. Asimov himself created a prime law, a “zeroth” to precede the three

        0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

        Which seems to me to be nit-picking.

        Harry Harrison came up with a proper 4th law, in a tale called, appropriately enough, “The Fourth Law of Robotics” to whit:-

        “A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law.”

        Source: Wikipedia

        As an aside, Clifford Simak’s book “City” does a good job of exploring robot-human (and robot-dog), relationships.

        Source: Me!


        30/05/2011 at 6:06 pm

        • Thanks for checking that, Ron. Yes — that rings a bell. I think that’s the fourth law I saw at the exhibition. As you say, I’m not sure it adds anything? Although maybe it moves from the particular to the general. I’ll take a look at Simak’s book. Thanks!


          30/05/2011 at 6:12 pm

  2. I almost don’t believe you have never read SF – reading it as a child was what gave me such wonderful words as hegemony, tesseract and mezzanine (for example).

    I’m glad Ron got in there with some Asimov robot recommendations.

    Then of course, beyond robots you get androids – surely you’ve seen the film AI? Based on Brian Aldiss’s story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long”.

    There’s so much poignancy in robots of all sorts…

    Best wishes…


    30/05/2011 at 5:50 pm

    • Hi, Pat — lovely to see you here. I know, what was I thinking? I’ve written one hundred lines today. Yes, of course I’ve seen that film, she lied. I always loved the robot in Lost in Space (she said, pathetically), and I’ve enjoyed quite a few science fiction films — but the books have never appealed (until now). Someone else said to me that the visionary ideas to be found in science fiction often outstrip the author’s writing skills (or lack thereof): i.e. the prose is often turgid and uninspiring. I’ll have to see…


      30/05/2011 at 6:07 pm

    • Hi Pat,

      Of androids, in Simak’s second novel, Time and Again, he featured, as a constant background rumble, the war between androids and humans, waged across time and space, as androids fought not just for their own equality but that of all other sentient life, while mankind, as ever, clung with a deadly tenacity to the misplaced belief in its own superiority.


      30/05/2011 at 6:28 pm

    • “. . . reading it as a child was what gave me such wonderful words as hegemony, tesseract and mezzanine (for example).”

      Me too – same words!


      30/05/2011 at 6:36 pm

  3. Deborah, three SF novels, among the best of the genre, and all by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle:-

    The Burning City and its sequel Burning Tower, set in California 14,000 years in the past, but explaining a lot of the present 😉 The second is sometimes billed as The Burning Tower, which is wrong, BT is a person.

    The third is Destiny’s Road, a tale of the colonisation of an alien planet, where humanity simply can’t survive – but does thanks to a positively ingenious solution.

    Add to those anything by Clifford Simak; Hothouse and Non-Stop by Aldiss (much of the best s-f is found in short stories, like Second Variety, by Philip K. Dick), and that’ll keep you going for while.


    30/05/2011 at 7:03 pm

    • Thanks, Ron, I appreciate your suggestions. Your comment about the best science fiction being found in short stories is interesting — it’s an opinion shared by a lot of people, I think. Less scope to become turgid, perhaps: the short story form is much more disciplined.


      30/05/2011 at 7:19 pm

      • Discipline has all but disappeared from writing – witness the plague of doorstop novels, or interminable series – a good writer knows when to stop.

        These guys have a load of Golden Age s-f (never sci-fi, by the way!)http://www.manybooks.net/authors.php particularly short stories.

        Yes, some of the writing is dire but, like the Grand Ole Opry banning drums, sex in s-f was a no-no for generations, which often put a crimp in the narrative, but really, no more dire than any other embryonic (then) genre.

        For hardline, nuts and bolts s-f, Arthur Clarke is hard to beat, Rendezvous with Rama, and The Fountains of Paradise being spectacularly good, and his short story, Sunjammer (think space-going clipper ships powered by the solar wind) is worth seeking out.

        And on that note, I shall leave it alone, before it all gets boring!


        30/05/2011 at 7:42 pm

        • You are a fount of science fiction knowledge, Ron! I’ve made a note of all your suggestions (I wouldn’t have known where to start). Thanks very much indeed.

          Live long and prosper. (I can do sci fi.)


          30/05/2011 at 7:53 pm

          • OK I lied, but I can’t not point you at Dune, by Frank Herbert, and Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.

            And there I really shall leave it.


            30/05/2011 at 8:18 pm

            • Thanks, Ron! I will soon be able to claim official science fiction aficionado status.


              30/05/2011 at 8:37 pm

  4. What wonderful exhibitions. Wish I could have seen them. We performed a scene from RUR in one of my college drama classes, back in the 70s, and I loved Asimov, Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Herbert and Heinlein since adolescence. I was an adult before I got into the others Ron mentioned.

    My nomination for the speculative fiction writer whose prose is the best (never outstripped by the concepts) would be Ursula K. Le Guin.

    Invisible Mikey

    30/05/2011 at 11:25 pm

    • Yes, I think you’d really enjoy the exhibition. Some of the most fascinating exhibits are the original manuscripts of a number of the most famous works — complete with amends and crossings out, etc. These amended handwritten/typewritten manuscripts are becoming rarer for obvious reasons, although an annotated handwritten page of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is on display. As The Telegraph reported:

      One real treat is an original manuscript of 2005 romantic-horror, Never Let Me Go, loaned to the British Library by its author, Kazuo Ishiguro. You can make out the indelible line: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old”.

      I’ve added Ursula K. Le Guin to my list. Thanks, Mikey.


      31/05/2011 at 9:48 am

  5. In South Africa we call traffic lights, robots. Strange, I know. 🙂

    Tracy Todd

    31/05/2011 at 8:09 am

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