Robotic English Teacher, Now Hiring

            It was summer time. I can’t remember exactly which summer it was, but I must have been about twelve years old, or maybe a little older. I was in the dog house. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean. I was banished to my room and I could hear the other children playing outside in the hot sunshine without me. Unlike my brothers, I was a kid who liked to stay outdoors and it was a real punishment for me to have to sit still in my room for any length of time. My Flintstones wall clock ticked so slowly and I knew I had to stay in my room until suppertime. I don’t remember what my terrible crime was, but I do vividly remember the feeling of great injustice. Why did I have to belong to a family, where parents were strict and punishments were swift? All I wanted was to be free to roam around with my friends. I felt the great urgency to break free from these human restraints on my God-given right to freedom.

            My childhood bedroom had one small bookshelf. You can guess what was on it: the usual pre-teen boy’s mess of toy cars, action figures, comics and old chewing gum packets. I flicked through my comic book collection, but I wasn’t really in the mood for superheroes. What would Spiderman do in this situation? He would creep up the wall and out of the window. I bet Spiderman didn’t have to worry about his mother finding out and confining him to barracks for another few days. My “heroes of baseball” picture book only reminded me that I couldn’t be out there practising with my friends.  I sighed and my eyes fell on a black book.

            I knew all about books, of course, and I even read a few in school. It was not a children’s book, because the only picture was a scientific diagram on the front cover. I realised it must have belonged to my older brother. He was a bit of a geek, and I almost dismissed it for that reason alone. Anything that had belonged to my brother was, by definition, unsuitable for me. Younger brothers soon learn to avoid following older brothers. It just leads to arguments and humiliation, because you can never catch up with them. It was the first real grown up book that I read. Yes, I did sit down and began to read that book. Things were so bad that this was the only option left on that sunny summer’s day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book changed my life, and even at that young age, I was conscious that this book was different from all the other books I had encountered, before that point. Reading that book made me feel as if I was no longer confined to my room.

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            The story started with a description of two children playing. The irony of this was not lost on me, but I persevered even though some of the words were beyond my limited vocabulary. Gradually, the story drew me in and I discovered that one of the children was in fact a robot! The book was Asimov’s I, Robot and I was captivated by the personality of the robot. He was just like me! The day passed quietly and remarkably quickly. Over the next week I ploughed through the early chapters, learning about the research programme that produced robots to become household servants. What fascinated me was the way that the young robot took everything literally, and the way that the human characters misunderstood his innocent questions. I would like to report that I noticed the parallels with slavery and the discussion of moral issues about identity, difference and belonging, but that would be dishonest. I was drawn into the story because it was well written, and with characters I could believe in, and because it was so different from my own experience, and yet in some inexplicable way, also so similar.

            I was also magnetized to the book, because it opened my perspective on having a different friend, a human robot. I spent a long time dreaming about the robot character “Robbie” and imagining how the world would look through his artificial eyes. The world of this book was alien, but it spoke to me and I could feel my mind, like Robbie’s in the book, growing to take in bigger ideas than the ones I had found with my childhood playmates. One time, I thought about playing with Robbie. My whole room is the galaxy of Mazroubi, a newly discovered galaxy, 5,061 Milky Ways from the Milky Way. We were in a silver-and-gold, shining intergalactic spaceship, blazing away, running from Mazroubi’s marauders, the three-eyed, dwarf-sized slimy green aliens they called Azoomimmies. I saw them from our monitor, when I spoke to their commander, Captain Spookers. I didn’t think he was ugly, only angry, with his eyes bulging out. He contacted us, before he triggered the ultimate missile that could have wiped us clean. He yelled at us and said: “Leave our galaxy! No other marauders can take it from us!” Robbie laughed and said: “Is that what you think we are doing? Marauding Mazroubi? Oh no, no! Not at all! We are simply visiting this beautiful galaxy, and we will be leaving soon.” I added: “By the way, you wouldn’t have any tourist brochures there or anything? I mean, marauders must know a lot about places they maraud.” Captain Spookers, hard as it may to describe, loosened up and smiled. His smile did not look far from his menacing look. We only figured out he smiled, from the way he calmly talked to us. There was that smile in his voice too. He said: “Oh, I see. Why didn’t you say so! I will be teleporting some brochures to you and we will be off our way. Thank for visiting Mazroubi.” And off Robbie and I went, on to other adventures.

            About a week after I first opened the book I was perched on the backdoor step one day, reading how the robot saved his human playmate from an approaching truck, when my mother suddenly snatched the book from my hands and screeched “Get your nose out of that book and go and do something useful”. The book was removed and I was chased out into the yard. That, for a time at least, was the end of that. The summer dragged on and the school year started again with no more readings from I, Robot. I did not find out how the story ended, and I left it behind as a pleasant memory from a week in summer. Sometimes though, I had intergalactic journey dreams. It was Robbie’s way of nudging me back to his world. Every time I wake up, however, I remember something else I need to do.

In the months after that summer, I grew into a sullen teenager with no thoughts of reading anything more serious than baseball magazines and cornflakes packets. My book shelves were emptied and the childish trash was replaced by CDs.  My grades in school were not too good, and I was bored by most of my classes. It was much later, several years in fact, before I encountered the book again. On this occasion, it was in school and the book was set as a reading text in English class. The film had appeared as well, and we were all told to reflect on the meaning of the book for our world today. English was not my strongest subject, and it would even be fair to say that I was probably the laziest and least willing reader in the class.

At first, I was unsure of opening the book. I felt awkward, like I saw a friend back in boyhood days, and I did not know what to say, and he did not know what to say, and we both look down, feeling stupid and tongue-tied even more. I guess a pregnant pause was not enough to describe the uneasiness. Maybe it was more like a pregnant pause, followed by six more pregnant pauses. The book felt heavy in my arms, and it accused me of abandoning him. I saw Robbie in my mind, his arms crossed, with anger in his standing position, but glistening sadness in his eyes. I whispered sorry to an old, forgotten friend, and I dared to enter a familiar world.

The feeling of reading the early chapters again was like the feeling of meeting an old friend. It was the same, but not the same. I only knew that Robbie and I, we were back in business. We were friends once more. More than that, I hired Robbie to become my English teacher.

For a start, I had not realised that Asimov wrote the book in the 1950s. The film also gives the impression that the story is modern, but reading the book at school opened my eyes to the ability of this writer to imagine a world he could have no way of predicting. It was my first glimpse of the world of thought and reflection. With the help of a very talented English teacher, I not only managed to read the story to the end, but I learned to appreciate the craft of the author and I went on to read more of this series and a lot more of the classical science fiction works like Heinlein, H.G. Wells and others. Of course, Robbie helped too. His story and his way of seeing the world opened my mind and heart to startling possibilities. Huge ideas that I could not have grasped in my first reading were now explained. I gained more awareness of the general philosophies behind the individual characters, and I realized that science fiction is an excellent way to explore the issues in our world that we continue to make a complete mess of. In some ways I have more sympathy with the robots than with the humans and I think, incidentally, that the film completely failed to get across how human the robots were. The medium of writing conveyed to me much more than the glitzy film and it is my ambition to understand how and why this is, and to be able to write like Isaac Asimov.

I don’t believe in fate, or destiny but looking back over my relationship to I, Robot, it is almost as if the book had been deliberately revealed to me in two parts. My first encounter as a child taught me to appreciate literature naively, just for the story; while the second encounter taught me to understand not only what the book is doing, but also how. My love of literature was awakened in the end, despite an initial false start, and as an added bonus, I have a better relationship now with my geeky older brother than I ever had when we were growing up. I now know what freedom means, in a whole new amazing level. I am positively sure of it. I can fly as freely as I want to. And Spiderman would just have to eat my dust.


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