This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:
“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”
“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”
“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”
“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”
(You can read part of the story here.)
Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)
“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.
What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.
A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.
Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.