In January of this year, I was very excited to see the completion of the short film, “Touch of Love.” It is based on my flash fiction piece by the same name. ToL was one of my first “pro” sales in 2007 – to Daily Science Fiction. (Psst, you can read it here if you like, or can purchase the reprint in the anthology 10 Tales of Steampunk). Since that time, the story has morphed and grown and increased in complexity.
It’s debut screening was at Balticon in May of this year and I’m proud to say it made a Top 5 finish. I even posted a few pictures about the weekend. And yes, I loved every minute. In addition, on August 19, ToL was included as part of Baltimore’s Reel Independent Women Minority Filmmaker Showcase. (I really need to post a few pictures from that.) But in all this time, I never really got a chance to talk about the film. I know, I know, a work should speak for itself, but hey, it’s my blog and I thought why not take a few minutes to talk about WHY this film is so important to me.
I love Science Fiction. I love it almost as much as I love Steampunk. And I love them both for the same reasons – they give us the opportunity to look at social and cultural mores and ask, “What if?” Heinlein, Asimov, Norton, Clarke, Butler…all of them looked at the world as it is and wrote stories that made us question our assumptions about it. But it is very difficult to get us to see past our own illusions and ideologies. Our worldview, complete with all of its assumptions and value judgements are well learned, and as they said in the musical, South Pacific, “You Must be Carefully Taught” (referencing racism in particular). I won’t get into it here but there are a WHOLE lot of issues with that musical.
So what better way to reframe the tired arguments, to shake us out of our reverie and force us to consider another way…than another world? Science Fiction has always given us a view into a world that might have been. Dystopias like Brave New World or 1984 warn us of potential outcomes from current pathways, and more idealistic goals such as some of those espoused within Star Trek encourage us to strive towards a more equitable and peaceful future. In a fictional future we can more openly explore, race, disability, gender, nationalism (and jingoism), imperialism, environmental catastrophe and other issues that are so wrapped up in our current news and life that we have a tougher time viewing it in a neutral fashion.
The short story touches on the issue, but the film goes much further – I wanted to examine the nature of violence, particularly intimate violence and how it is learned. Research has shown us over and over how we learn behaviors and how our worldview is build up from our experiences and that if violence is a common part of it, then violence will be what we know and do and believe to be normal. So what happens if we become more, rather than less accepting of domestic violence; if we build a world that accommodates “appropriate” violence? Our lives, our technology facilitates it? We all know the trope of robots built to love humans; we already are building “companions” for the elderly and striving to create robots that can pass for human.
There’s an interesting paper on Robots, Love, and Sex:The Ethics of Building a Love Machine, the psychology of it, the kinds of ethics and design principles that would be involved that offered some great food for thought as I wrote and rewrote the script.
So, after reading that, I considered, how hard would it be to build robots to accommodate that future intimate violence? What happens when we teach them not only to accommodate it, but to love it? Love, hate, power, those are just words; the emotions connected to them are complicated and messy, so when we teach those emotions to our human analogues, can we be surprised at their mimesis?
TOUCH OF LOVE
Honey is a Companion robot, human-like in appearance and biology, assigned to a domestic abuser as therapy. After a recent session, with a blend of injuries both human and machine, Honey is brought in for repairs. In the quiet moments with her builder, Honey learns to express her own feelings about love.
It’s not complicated to conceive of robots that people love. What will truly teach us about human nature is when we build a robot that can love us back. But human nature is a strange and fickle thing, and we might discover that we teach things we never intended.
How does a robot express love? The answer is all too human.