This review was originally written for robots.net.
Jason Christie wrote a book of robot poetry. EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing printed it. This may be a first. But what is robot poetry? Who reads it? Is it any good? These are a few of the questions I’ve attempted to answer in my review of i-ROBOT, Jason Christie’s book of robot poems. What’s the bottom line? If you only have one book of robot poetry in your library, this should be it. For more, or if you think you might enjoy reading a robot builder’s attempt at poetry review, read on.
Title: i-ROBOT Poetry by Jason Christie
Author: Jason Christie
ISBN Number: 1-894063-24-4
Publisher: EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
Number of pages: 102
When I was asked to review a book of robot poetry, my first thought was, what the hell is robot poetry? Poetry written by robots? Poetry about robots? I suppose I may be uniquely qualified to review a book of robot poetry since I compiled an article a few years ago that collected poetry written by members of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. While entertaining, the thought of a book full of that sort of poetry was a little more than I was prepared to read. Fortunately, real poets write better poetry than most robot hobbyists.
Before I got the book in my hands, I already knew the title: i-ROBOT. I spent a few days pondering this until the book arrived. It’s the most overused robot-related title around. Okay, so it’s i-ROBOT and not I Robot. They added a hyphen, made the i lower case and robot all upper case. Still, naming a book of robot poetry I Robot makes about as much sense as naming a book of space poetry Star Trek. It just leaves readers wondering what the connection is to the more well known work of the same title.
I Robot was originally a title used for the 1939 Eando Binder short story about a misunderstood robot. Later, Issac Asimov’s publisher borrowed the title, much to Asimov’s dismay, for his first collection of Susan Calvin robot stories, replacing Asimov’s original title Mind and Iron. The recent Hollywood killer-robot movie borrowed the title from Asimov, even adding a few minor last minute patches to the script so they could claim it was “based on” something Asimov wrote (it wasn’t, of course). And, if that wasn’t confusing enough, there’s also the company that makes the Roomba calling themselves iRobot. So, if I have any complaint about this book, it’s the reuse of an already heavily over-used title.
Eventually, the book arrived and I stopped obsessing about the title. I turned the book over and looked at the back cover, where a Spider Robinson blurb begins, “Jason Christie is even weirder than I am. That doesn’t happen a lot.” When Spider Robinson says someone is weird, pay attention. This was my first clue that the book might not be what I expected. And, as it turned out, I was quite surprised at the contents of Jason Christie’s book of robot poetry.
First of all, these aren’t the rhyming robot limericks you’re probably expecting (There once was a robot from Nantucket). Not being a poet or even an avid fan of poetry, I can’t tell you in a technical sense what the things in this book are. Oh sure, like most typical geeks, I’ve written my share of bad Haiku and Senryu. But it’s been many years since I tried to grok the difference between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter. So if that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in, you’ll have read about it in some other review.
The best I can hope for here is to tell you that, like all good poetry, these poems evoke feelings, moods, and reveal underlying meaning in some way that actually works. So don’t get the wrong idea from my lack of poetry reviewing skills. This is not some wretched Vogon poetry that will make you long to be thrown out of an airlock. This is good stuff.
To give you idea of what Christie’s style of poetry sounds like, think back to the rhyming narrative poems you probably heard as a child. Take that memory and remove any trace of rhyming and verse. Jiggle up the form a bit, leaving the narrative intact. That will get you close. The first response of my wife, to whom I read a few of the poems aloud was, “those aren’t poems, they’re little stories”. An example or two would probably explain things better than I can.
Linear Thought: Canary
“Look,” the guidance counselor told the
little robot in the hoverchair across from him.
“You just aren’t built to be a ballerinabot. You
were designed for going into the mines, after
you graduate high school, to test for toxic gases
and other dangerous situations, so the humans
and delicate analysisbots don’t get destoryed.
That’s why your surface paint has a powerful
transmitter chemical. It shows up bright yellow
on all of our monitors. You are an exceptional,
special, and unique robot. Can you imagine a
ballerinabot with treads? You would be lucky
to mop the stage given your build and bent.
I understand your dream of being a dancer; I
dreamt of being a lawyer, but some of us, and
by that I mean, you , aren’t built that way. Best
to follow the path for which you were created.
That way true happiness lies.” The guidance
counselor leaned back, folder his hands across
his metal belly, smiled a knowing smile and
winked at the confused little studentbot.
Some of the poems, like Linear Thought: Canary, involve primarily robots but many of the poems also bring in human characters:
We had a back-to-nature weekend because
our household robots went on a religious
retreat. When they returned on Sunday evening,
the toaster exclaimed: “I come from the sea just
like you!” before it plugged itself into the socket
under the cupboard. My wife, who has never
quite trusted robots, said: “I told you giving
them the vote was a bad idea.” I shrugged and
had to tell the dryer later that night that it
wasn’t allowed to sleep in our bed anymore.
Many of the poems seem to take place in a common future history, filled with talking toasters, trans-human cybernetic beings, disgruntled workerbots, overbearing bossbots, and friendly robots who sing Happy Activation Day to You! with their robot friends on that special robot holiday. Some poems are purely for fun. Others hint at a darker side to life in a future filled with robots. Some of the poems, in common with all science fiction, make comments on issues facing our present day society by tearing the problems from their familiar contexts and dropping them into a futuristic world. The narrative nature of the poems immediately suggests a connection to some other form of story-telling. They almost cry out for visual interpretation. I’m apparently not the first to notice this, as there has already been an animated short film based on Jason Christies robot poems, directed by Lisa Mann and Curtis Wehrfritz.
While most of the poems in the book share the similar narrative quality, not all do. Some are playful constructs of words and syntax, laced with robot references. Others seem to express the ideas or feelings of the robots in a less familiar way. One in particular that struck me as having potential as a libretto for some future Philip Glass composition:
Free from emotional strife, free from anxiety,
low self-esteem, holy anger, righteous indignation,
free from fate, from destiny, from necessity,
freed from irrationality, from indecision, from
despair and depression, free from fear, from sin,
from cowardice, free from a sense of obligation,
from jealousy or envy, free from indebtedness,
free from despondence, free morality
Jason even snuck in a geek take on Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem:
I’ve seen the newest processors of my
generation destroyed by malfunctions, data-
starved, hysterical naked, dragging themselves
throught the streets at dawn looking for an
angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for
the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty
and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops
of cities contemplating techno.
The book contains just over 100 pages of robot poetry. Even if you only find one or two you enjoy, the book is worth the purchase price and, odds are, you’ll find all of them enjoyable to read. The book raised a few questions for me, which I’ll leave for you to ponder. Does this book herald some new sub genre of poetry? Will we start seeing more books of robot poetry? What makes robots such a popular common ground between artists and engineers?
Finally, if you have any doubt left that Jason Christie understand the culture of geek robot builders consider the truth of this short poem:
Everything I touch turns into robots.