Guest Post: Labor in Sci-Fi, or Make the Robots Do It, by Adam Rakunas

bossAdam Rakunas is the author of Windswept and the recently released Like a Boss, both part of a sci-fi series that imagines a corner of future economic system built on the intergalactic rum trade, and the labor unions responsible for producing the goods. He joins us below to muse on the often invisible role labor plays in our imagined SF universes.

“People love to read about work,” wrote Stephen King in his seminal On Writing. “God knows why, but they do.”

Probably because work is one of those things that most of us can identify with. Unless you’re a member of the 0.1 percent, you’ve probably had a job at some point. Maybe you’ve had several. My full CV would list grocery bagger, parking lot attendant, fast food cashier, events coordinator, video game engineer (for four different companies), theater usher, IT consultant, online marketing specialist, virtual world developer, triathlon race director, and writer.

Throw in the stuff I didn’t get paid for (political engineer, Girl Scout troop leader, stay-at-home dad), and that’s thirteen jobs. Some of you can probably find a few gigs in that list that will give us some common ground. “What do you do for a living?” is probably the most common thing two strangers say to each other. It gives us something to start with because, as the great political philosopher Richard Scarry once wrote, “Everyone is a worker.”

Work is one of those things we’re all going to have to keep doing until we find our way into the Star Trek future where people no longer have to fight for food, water, and commemorative silverware. I think we’re more likely to stumble into the world of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels, where most of Earth lives on a minimum guaranteed income that’s a few steps ahead of poverty and starvation.

Everyone else who isn’t very, very poor or very, very rich works their tails off, and a lot of those jobs are dangerous. I just started Cibola Burn, book four of James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and so far the talk has been about mineral rights, workplace law, and the benefits of hazard pay. We work because we want more, even if that more is something as simple as more air that isn’t made of everyone’s recycled farts.

We’ve dreamed about replacements for our drudgery ever since drudgery was invented. That drudgery got a shot in the arm during the Industrial Revolution, which freed people from back-breaking labor by making others engage in mind-numbing labor (with the occasional broken back thrown in as a bonus).

While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first book to talk about humanity creating life, I think Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) is the first piece of science fiction to talk about creating life in order to make it do our crappy jobs. Here the roboti are grown from artificial protoplasm instead of metal, but their role is still the same: serving humanity. That Rossum’s robots overthrow humanity shouldn’t be much of a surprise, because drudgery is drudgery, unless you’re clever enough to make loving drudgery a feature, not a bug.

We can draw a pretty clear line from R.U.R to the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, with a stop along the way in 1982 for Blade Runner. Once again, humanity has made intelligent, labor-saving devices to do dangerous or immoral jobs. The Cylons and Tyrell’s Replicants are soldiers and miners and deep-space explorers. They’re also considered expendable things, which is fine until they begin to say, ‘no, we aren’t. We’re living, sentient beings with hopes and dreams. Oh, by the way; kill all humans’.

Putting aside Galactica’s discussion of history as an endless cycle of violence and Bob Dylan songs, all of these works have something in common: the dehumanizing nature of industry carries into the tools of industry itself, especially when we make those tools in our own Rutger Hauer-based image. If you’re going to value working people as things, then retool those people into things, don’t be surprised when those things rise up. People can only take so much, and our faults and petty desires only get magnified when they’re distilled into sexy, sexy machines.

It doesn’t take robots to have a revolution, as shown in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Lang’s masterwork, with its lush score and Bauhaus-inspired design, begins with a shift change choreographed as a death march. As one brigade of workers trudges out of the massive machinery that powers Metropolis, the next moves toward the elevators that take them deep below the surface of the earth, where they will push buttons and pull dials in steady, soul-crushing unison.

They’re nothing but human widgets with their shapeless boiler suits and skullcaps, and, when one stops pressing his button because he’s too exhausted to focus, the whole machine explodes, sending bodies flying. It’s a terrifying scene, and, if there’s any plot hole in Lang’s film, it’s that it shouldn’t take a robot double of beloved labor leader Maria to foment a strike. If anything, Robo-Maria should have been employed to try and keep everyone working just a little bit more in the factory that’s doing its best to kill them.

The Industrial Revolution gave way to political revolution as people picked up their pitchforks and torches to overthrow The Man. I think it’s interesting that Robert Heinlein wrote about both sides of a labor revolt in The Roads Must Roll and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Heinlein of 1940 was disillusioned with socialism after failing to make any political inroads through 1930s progressivism, and that disillusionment played into his portrayal of the revolt in Roads as something that should be crushed.

It’s a callback to the previous sixty years of government ending work stoppages through military force, and it’s a future echo of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of America’s air traffic controllers. The roads must roll, the planes must fly, and tough cookies if you want better working conditions.

In 1966, when Heinlein wrote Moon, he was a man in full libertarian bloom. The TAANSTAFL philosophy, born from the revelation that Luna’s status quo would result in starvation and cannibalism, is an important cornerstone to Western science fiction, and would probably make for a better society than Ayn Rand’s Galtian Screw-You-I’ve-Got-Mine attitude. The Lunies realize they’re in a closed system and that the only people they can depend on is each other. Corey’s Belters and the OPA would feel right at home next to Manny, Wyoh, and Mike, as would Chief Tyrol from Galactica, who himself led a workers’ revolt.

Maybe it’s the one thing we can agree on: the smaller the system, the more we have to cooperate to survive and thrive. And part of that cooperation means valuing each other as people, not as machines. Unless you really are a machine, like Chief Tyrol is, but that’s another essay for another time.

Like a Boss is available now.

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