Kage Baker flat out loved robots. They fascinated her, to the point where she would argue over points of classical science fiction robot lore – she thought Asimov’s Three Laws were dreadful, and immoral to enforce against thinking beings. She maintained that they were impossible to maintain, any way; that any actually sentient artificial intelligence would break those imposed restrictions sooner or later, or sacrifice their own self-awareness.
Dr. Susan Calvin was her favourite fictional robotocist.
When she was little, Kage saved up cereal box tops to get a walking robot. He was keen – had a pull-cord with a weight on it, so that when you pulled it out and over the edge of the tabler, he would toddle across the table-top as it wound up again. Sort of a square-built dude of painted tin.
What she always wanted was a Rock ’em Sock ’em Robot set. These were The Original!!! Battling!!! Robots!!! – red and blue tin bruisers who would batter away at one another until one of their head shot up on a long spindly neck, signifying defeat. She never got a set, as I recall, but she loved them. Nowadays they’re made of plastic, but when we were small they were good honest tin you could cut your hand open on.
Kage was tremendously fond of painted tin toys in general.
She liked Robby the Robot as well. He made his film debut in Forbidden Planet, which I adored – though Kage could barely stand to watch it, as the Id monsters scared her badly. But Robby is a classic fellow, much cooler than Will Robinson’s half-witted nanny bot from Lost in Space. And he was a very good toy, too: She especially liked the Tik-Tok Man of Oz. His lambent emerald eyes in the much-neglected film Return to Oz (Buena Vista, 1985) contributed a lot to her affection for him. But the transient and yet enduring nature of his personality – dependent as it was on the running down of his key, which he could not wind himself – fascinated her.
Kage’s favourite all time robot, though, was probably Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin’s muttered despair, occasional sparked into active malice by the unfairness of life, just cracked her up. The fact that, as a BBC prop on the television series, he looked about as realistic as a shoe box covered in aluminum foil, just added to his charm: But the BBC, after all, were the authenticity-fanatics who built the Daleks out of traffic pylons and kitchen utensils …
With this fondness for robots, Kage was taken at once with the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity; especially as their three-month life expectancy stretched into improbable and heroic years. She had a permanent link to their public sites on her computer, and pored for hours over their exploits and photographs. As for so many of us, they had real personalities for her. She agonized when they got stuck, she cheered when they kept winning free to roll on and on over the Martian landscape.
Spirit was her favourite of the two. It may have been the fact that it seemed to encounter more trouble on its Ever Ready Bunny way, or maybe it just sent back pictures Kage liked better – I know she was endlessly drawn to Spirit’s film of dust devils in Gusev Crater. She would watch it over and over, eyes rapt and dreaming as the dust storm moved like a living thing across the stony landscape. That one clip symbolized every romantic vision of space travel for Kage: the real face of another planet.
Spirit has now reached the end of its mission, and its plucky little life as well. I’m glad Kage didn’t know about it. It would have been the death of a friend for her, and she’d have mourned it sincerely. For myself … I’m sad it’s sitting there stuck in the sand, in the shadow of the Columbia Hills; which are themselves named for others who gave their lives to the endeavour of space exploration. But it did a bang-up job. And one of the things Kage commented on with deep satisfaction in her last week was that Spirit and Endeavor were still going strong.
In the meantime, Spirit looks out at this:That’s the last panoramic Spirit sent. The peak with the pale summit is named Von Braun, one of the first real rocketeers. I have hopes that someday, even if the sands bury Spirit, that peak will let us know where it is, mark its resting place so we can dig it out. I’d like to see that gallant little machine as the centrepice of a planetary park, preserved by the New Martians – who are us.