A few days ago, I received a collection of poetry in the mail from long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor, G.O. Clark. It was a copy of his new poetry collection, Built to Serve. In this collection, Clark tackles the subject of robots from many different angles. Of course, robots are no longer just the stuff of science fiction, they’re part of our every day world. I started my astronomy career working with a robotic telescope and over the course of my career, I’ve seen automation make many aspects of astronomical observation more efficient. I’ve long thought about artificial intelligence and my daughter recently took a college course in machine learning, which led to some interesting discussions. What’s more, writers have long used robots as metaphors for low wage workers or even slaves.
Clark’s collection takes a look at robots from both the practical and metaphorical angles. He starts the collection in an almost steampunk alternate reality and imagines robots of the past moving forward into futures of obsolescence, much as humans do in life. As he notes in “The Steam-Powered Robot”:
Funny thing about the future,
it never waits for anyone. His mainspring
driven moment slipped away: old iron
bones recycled for a newer model.
Clark compares and contrasts the sensations robots might experience to those of humans. He also imagines how humans might themselves go against the spirit of Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics and use robots to hunt down other humans. In a familiar science fiction trope, Clark imagines robots transforming the world into a better place, which doesn’t always go so well for the humans who created them.
C;arl reminds us that many of our first encounters with robots are with toys and he looks at those encounters with both fondness and terror. Some of the robots he introduces us to are toys of the more adult variety, but even they can induce nightmares such as the lady robot in this poem:
Heading back towards the
closet, she deftly unzips, then
steps out of her perfect tan skin and
hangs it upon a custom hanger.
It’s true Clark covers many familiar robot tropes, but he does it well and often times he gives those tropes fresh twists. Moreover, he looks at humanity through the eyes of robots and helps us understand more about ourselves. This is a collection well worth seeking out. You can find copies at the Alban Lake Store and at Smashwords.
I spent this past weekend at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yesterday, I moderated a panel called “Are Robots Still Scary? Danger Will Robinson!” As it turns out, I suggested this panel to the event organizers because it occurred to me that I work with a robot quite a bit at Kitt Peak National Observatory and it’s a far cry from the anthropomorphic robots of pulp sci fi and probably more irritating at times than scary. The robot I’ve spent most of my time with is called the Hydra gripper. The reason it can be irritating, is that I’m one of the guys who has to go fix it when it breaks down!
The gripper is on the right-hand side of the photo above. Its job is to pick up the fibers on the left side and position them on the plate so that they line up with objects on the sky. When the telescope is pointed at the target, light from the objects will go downstairs to a spectrograph, where it will be broken into a spectrum and projected on a camera. Astronomers can take that light and analyze it to understand the chemical composition of the objects they’re studying. These objects can range from stars, to galaxies, to nebulae. Some objects are nearby, others are among the most distant in the universe.
The reason for this post’s title, is that we’re about to get another robotic spectrograph at Kitt Peak. This one is called DESI (which stands for Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument). Hydra allows us to take spectra of upwards of 200 objects at a time. DESI will let us take spectra of 5000 objects. You can read more about DESI in this press release from the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab. The goal of the instrument is to get spectra of all the known galaxies obtainable by the 4-meter in order to understand the phenomenon that’s been dubbed “dark energy.” Along the way, we’ll build an incredible database of spectra available to the entire astronomical community.
This week, I’ll be helping to test a prototype of DESI on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. The fibers of DESI are so closely packed that they aren’t moved around by a system like a gripper. Instead, each fiber is a little robot that turns on its own to optimize its position on the sky. Because of this project and the number of people it takes to get a project like this off the ground, DOE has helped to fund a new, larger control room for the Mayall. You can see the original on the left below. The new control room is on the right.
As it turns out, ghosts and stories of haunted observatories feature prominently in my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our new control room is one of the “haunted” spaces in the Mayall. It used to be an old lounge and there were two rocking chairs that would sometimes be seen to rock on their own even when no one is in there. It remains to be seen if there are any ghosts, or if this motion was just due to sway of the building. If there are ghosts in the building, I hope they like company, because there’s going to be a lot of it in the coming years!
Next weekend I’ll be in Albuquerque, New Mexico for Bubonicon 48. The theme is Rockets, Robots, and Rayguns and the guests of honor will be Rachel Caine and David Gerrold. Joe R. Lansdale will be serving as Toastmaster and Lee Moyer is the guest artist. I’ll be serving on three panels over the weekend and participating in the Mass Autographing Session on Saturday. On Sunday, I’ll be the host at the 1pm session of the Author’s Tea and pouring tea during the 2:15 session.
Friday, August 26
4-5pm – Main Room – Soylent Green: It’s a Cookbook. On this panel we’ll be exploring favorite recipes or foods from SF & Fantasy. Has a science fiction or fantasy story or book inspired you to culinary creativity? Characters need to eat, right? So, what do they eat? What about drinks and alcoholic beverages? How do food choices affect the story’s plot and “flavor”? Can a meal reveal factoids about the culture and society of the characters? Does it really all have to taste like chicken? I’ll be moderating this panel that features Jane Lindskold, Laura J. Mixon, Sage Walker and Corie Weaver.
Saturday, August 27
10-11am – Salon A-D – Where Have All the Publishers Gone? Anybody There? More and more people are self-publishing today. Will all writers eventually go to this format? Will we miss publishers when we don’t have them (if that happens)? What are the advantages and perils of dealing with a publisher or magazine editor? On the panel with me are Rachel Caine, Emily Mah, Gabi Stevens, and Pari Noskin. Robert Vardeman will be moderating.
5:25-6:40pm – Main Room – Mass Autographing Session All the authors attending Bubonicon will be on hand to sign their wares.
Sunday, August 28
10-11am – Main Room – Are Robots Still Scary? Danger Will Robinson! Robots once ran rampant on the pages of pulp magazines and across movie screens. Has familiarity with computers and perhaps Wall-E softened the image of the robot? Do we still fear the day the robots take over? Should we? Can we invent even scarier scenarios now that we’re more familiar with robots? I’ll be moderating this panel consisting of Mario Acevedo, Steven Gould, Jane Lindskold, Laura Mixon, and M.T. Reiten.
Of course, when I’m not on a panel, you’ll likely find me at the Bubonicon Flea Market at the Hadrosaur Productions table. Please come by, say “hi” and check out our newest books. If you’ll be in Albuquerque next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Bubonicon!