Robots in fiction for a high school audience
January 12, 2014 6:40 PM   Subscribe

What are some short stories, books and movies that feature robots or artificial intelligence in prominent roles? Looking for accessible conversation starters; could be classic sci-fi or more contemporary stuff. This is for a high school class of students with a wide range of English skills and cultural backgrounds. We'd like to come up with a list that would have something appealing for everyone, and would be appropriate for a school setting.

My husband is teaching an elective high school class on the theme of "robotics" that will occasionally incorporate movies and literature. For spring semester, he is planning to offer students a list of novels, short stories, and movies to write about and discuss. He needs things that:

1. Have themes related to robots, artificial intelligence, etc. and have the potential to spark some conversation in the classroom.
2. Are appropriate for school: movies must be PG or G. PG-13 might be OK if it's not related to nudity.
3. Are appealing and accessible to students from a broad range of backgrounds. It's OK if the works were originally intended as comedy or for young adult audiences.

Expectations for the class are kind of low in some ways, but this is an opportunity to work on literacy skills while introducing these kids to some interesting ideas and some great sci-fi.

So far we are brainstorming books and short stories like I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Movies could be relatively recent stuff like Wall-E, AI, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Bicentennial Man, or older titles such as Forbidden Planet. Blade Runner would be a great movie choice if we could get ahold of the edited-for-TV version. What else would you suggest?
posted by beandip to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Star Trek TNG episode The Measure of a Man? "In the episode, the android officer Lieutenant Commander Data must fight for his right of self-determination in order not to be declared the property of Starfleet and be disassembled in the name of science."
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:47 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

AI was based on/loosely inspired by Brian Aldiss's short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long. It's very short and free online.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:50 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Earthseed sounds ideal for this. It's an easy read (middle grade/YA-ish), features an AI that actively anticipates and learns from the human characters without sinister intent, features a multi-cultural cast, and offers up a lot of Big Questions you and the class can spend time discussing.
posted by greenland at 7:16 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, the eponymous society in Ian M. Banks' excellent Culture Novels is more or less run by sentient, hyperintelligent spaceships whose Minds are the descendants of what we in real life think of as Artificial Intelligences. They often play roles as major characters in the books, especially the later ones. For the book that features them most heavily, I would recommend Excession. There'd definitely be a lot to talk about in there in a school setting – in addition to talking a lot about what it's like to live in a society where ubiquitous Strong AIs are just part of The Way Things Are, the Culture books are chock full of ideology and sociology, as well as being really good fun to read. I was in High School when I first read them, and I loved them then and love them now.
posted by Scientist at 7:18 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Roderick, although Sladek gets terribly pleased with his own cleverness at times. It is funny, and clever, and a bit sad.

For short study, there's Jed The Humanoid and Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground) by Grandaddy.
posted by scruss at 7:18 PM on January 12, 2014

There are a ton of Ray Bradbury stories that would work. There Will Come Soft Rains (full text) features a robot house. I've done it with high schoolers lots of times.

I also found this link to dozens of stories, though I haven't read enough of them to recommend them.

Sounds fun though! Good luck to your husband and his students!
posted by guster4lovers at 7:38 PM on January 12, 2014

Shelly's Frankenstein, and however many subsequent adaptations, would be one of the first examples of this, alongside the Golem mythos from Jewish folklore. I'm pretty sure that Frankenstein is one of those classics that's gotten Manga treatment, and that might hook some students.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis would likely be public domain, and have short clips available on Youtube, and has the robotic character of Maria.

Liar is another Asimov selection, but it's a short story.

Autofac is another Dick selection, and represents an interesting idea (not robots that are intelligent like us, but that have developed their own warped, alien intelligence).

I think it'd be interesting to bring up the Meta-fictional story of Horse e_books (here's one such article dedicated to it). This blurs the line of reality and fiction, but it does ask the question about what it means to be intelligent from the other side of the spectrum - sort of an inverted Turing test.

Clips of HAL in 2001 are iconic for this idea, of course, especially HAL's 'death' scene.

Jenny the Teenaged Robot is probably a pop culture touchstone your kids would be passingly familiar with, and although I never watched it, it plays with these ideas for plot arcs.

Along a similar line, the character of BMO in Adventure Time often uses the tension between it being an appliance (the lead characters play games on it) and being a character (it has emotions and desires).

Almost Human is a new series on Fox, and is incredibly shitty, but fits some of this, and is likely to be in popular consciousness.

For poetry there's Brautigan's All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which is a (perhaps sincere, perhaps ironic) paean to a utopia controlled by machines.

David Bowie has a song called Saviour Machine, which tells the story of an AI programmed to run society, which develops its own desires, becomes bored, and murders everyone.

There's the Kids in the Hall Sketch about workers at a factory who put their arms in a vat of dead fish all day, and are replaced by a machine (there's some flipping of the bird, but otherwise fairly safe for school).

Numerous story-lines in Futurama revolve around Bender being a robot, and having to deal (humorously) with being a man-made-thing, but still essentially being a human. In fact, one of the anthology of interest episodes has a short that deals with Bender literally becoming human. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's also an episode where Fry is mistaken for a robot, and sent to one of their insane asylums.

I'm not very familiar with it, but the premise of the Battlestar Galactica remake is all about robots masquerading as humans... I'm sure you could cull some safe for school stuff out of that.

The most recent TRON movie has been liked by all of the middle school aged kids I've to talked to about it, and would be age appropriate.

The Matrix (if you ignore the violence) is also age appropriate, and is all about both artificial intelligence, simulated reality and robotics subsuming humanity.

The Iron Giant is probably below the age level that high schoolers would tolerate, but tells the story of a machine being taught to love.
posted by codacorolla at 7:55 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

C.L. Moore's story "No Woman Born" brings up interesting issues: a prominent popular entertainer has nearly died in a fire but an android body is created so she can continue living; is she still human, can she still function as a creative artist without the full range of human senses?

I would second the Asimov robot stories, which I discovered at high school age. The Three Laws of Robotics are such a tradition in this kind of writing that they're a good place to start.
posted by zadcat at 7:56 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you wanted to talk about robophobia without ultraviolence, there's the classic Sam Waterston endorsement of Old Glory Insurance (which is really just a parody of predatory companies targeting seniors with scare tactics).

Weird, Old Glory Insurance is now a real company, but they do workman's comp stuff, not protection from the metal ones.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:22 PM on January 12, 2014

I'm Here, a short film by Spike Jonze, would be a good starting point for discussing the boundaries of robot identity (if you replace their parts, at what point does a robot become a new creature?). The still-in-the-theaters Her has some great things to say about the singularity, but you'd have to censor at least two scenes.

Greg van Eekhout's The Boy at the End of the World has a great robot and also some compelling/scary nanotechnology.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:27 PM on January 12, 2014

Just yesterday finished re-reading Philip K. Dick's short novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and it would be AWESOME for highschool class discussions. Although the movie Blade Runner is loosely based on the short novel, it is not at all the same story. The book has a lot more themes to discuss!

If your husband goes with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he could spend the entire semester on just this one work. It's super dense and there are heaps of interesting interpretations on the internet. Memail if you want jaw droppers.
posted by jbenben at 8:34 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The movie Silent Running features 3 robots who care for forests aboard a spaceship.
posted by Sophont at 8:35 PM on January 12, 2014

I think I recall Cory Doctrow having some good robot stories. Cant remember what they are right now, though, so I volley it for another meta to spike
posted by Jacen at 8:45 PM on January 12, 2014

What about Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects? It's been awhile since I read it, but students with pets might appreciate the ideas around evolving & bonding with a virtual one. It's also a novella, if you're looking for something in that sweet spot (for length.)
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 9:38 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ken MacLeod's The Stone Canal is largely about the rights of sentient machines, against a backdrop of a lost love, Scottish communists, a lost love, and the Singularity

It's highly readable and I think there's a lot of themes in it which a student could work on.

I also second the suggestion of Iain Banks, and I'd submit Charlie Stross's Saturn Children as a consideration.

Regarding films, I strongly recommend you include an episode of Ghost in the Shell.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:12 PM on January 12, 2014

How about Greg Egan's short story Learning to be Me, an on-line copy of which can be found here? It begins with the beautiful line "I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me", and raises intriguing questions about AI and what we are as thinking beings.
posted by drnick at 1:07 AM on January 13, 2014

There are a ton of Ray Bradbury stories that would work. There Will Come Soft Rains (full text) features a robot house. I've done it with high schoolers lots of times.

This is an excellent choice, especially when followed up by this short animated film afterward. The students will be horrifed and depressed for the entire day! In fact, everyone should watch it to be horrified and depressed for this entire day!
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:06 AM on January 13, 2014

You mentioned I, Robot by Asimov - there is an entire short-story collection of similar stuff by him called Robot Dreams. Just about any of Asimov's other stories featuring R. Daneel Olivaw would be worth a look, too.
posted by jquinby at 5:02 AM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Start with the source - Rossum's Universal Robots. First introduction of the word "robot" to the English language.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:31 AM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Start with the source - Rossum's Universal Robots. First introduction of the word "robot" to the English language.

I came here to mention this too. My high school Drama class performed this (hello public domain!)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:37 AM on January 13, 2014

Neill Blomkamp's Tempbot is a funny/sad video short. Might be more PG-13 for acknowledging the existence of sex. I've used it with some students in university EFL courses to good response.
posted by Gotanda at 6:23 AM on January 13, 2014

Jem and the Holograms!

Also, Justina Robson's Silver Screen is about protecting the self hood rights of a new AI that a corporation wants to control.

Melissa Scott's Dreamships asks how AI and AI rights would impact generational poverty. It's VERY good.
posted by spunweb at 7:06 AM on January 13, 2014

Moon has an intelligent helper robot. It's rated R, but the R is only for language and a little bit of a man's buttocks, so that may be doable depending on the classroom.
posted by codacorolla at 7:20 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a lovely little film starring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon from 2012 called Robot & Frank.

"In the near future, Frank is a retired catburglar living alone while his successful son, Hunter, tries to care for him from afar. Finally, Hunter gets him a robot caretaker, but Frank soon learns that it is useful as a burglary aide. As Frank tries to restart his old profession, the uncomfortable realities of a changing world and his worsening dementia threaten to take him beyond what any reboot can do for him."

It's a reflective, thoughtful film about memory and identity, really intriguing.
posted by glasseyes at 7:42 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

The movie MOON (which is super excellent) was directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones.

I like to think Moon was so rich with thoughtful ideas because there's some sort of a family legacy thing inspiring the story and how it is told. Come to think of it, there are scenes in Moon that remind me very much of The Man Who Fell to Earth.


Please update and let us know what is chosen for the class!!
posted by jbenben at 8:05 AM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's been a while, but I seem to recall a robot in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
posted by Lillypad331 at 8:26 AM on January 13, 2014

I would suggest Lester del Rey's The Runaway Robot. Too bad it's out of print.
posted by Rash at 8:31 AM on January 13, 2014

Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is an overlooked classic novel, in my mind.

Set several centuries from now, our civilization has decayed (in the old-fashioned sense of "decadence") for reasons which are unclear. One of the main characters is a very old android named Spofforth, the Dean of New York University, which no longer has any students. He is perhaps the most "aware" and "civilized" person remaining in the world, and his bittersweet role in the present slow-motion catastrophe is fascinating.
posted by General Tonic at 10:42 AM on January 13, 2014

Machineman by Max Berry. It's about a person who basically turns himself into a robot. I can't remember though if there's anything that a school might deem inappropriate for students though.
posted by parakeetdog at 10:47 AM on January 13, 2014

Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Such a fabulous classic about man's ability for lasting peace.
posted by michellenoel at 11:37 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects?

Exhalation may also be of interest - Robots discovering the scientific method to investigate the nature of their robot-ness.
posted by Artw at 12:23 PM on January 13, 2014

Episodes of "X Minus One", the original old time radio audiodrama. Most of them are not original but based on some of the best '50s short stories. "Appointment in Tomorrow", "Child's Play", "The Defenders", "Dwellers in Silence", "How 2", "Iron Chancellor", "Logic Named Joe", and many more are about artificial intelligence and robots. Use the Internet Archive to download these public domain mp3s. Half an hour long and no more, and great production values.

Quiet Please, another early audiodrama, had a story called "Pathetic Fallacy". Since the audio recording is in rougher shape than those pristine X-1 episodes above, you might take the script and adapt it, for some readers' theatre fun.

Isaac Asimov's short stories or simply a discussion of the Robotics laws would be great discussion fodder.

The Robots of Death (Dr. Who episode with Tom Baker). Viewers need not have seen lots of Dr. Who before. Shot in the 1970s with a Gatsby-art-deco meets disco visual flair but it plays on the idea of "Robotphobia" and Asimov's laws becoming reality.

There's also a fun X-Files episode revolving around a killer mainframe computer, but it's not going to offer you the more serious food for thought you'd have with say, "2001" and HAL 9000.

Star Trek episodes like TNG's "Evolution" and the original series' "What Are Little Girls Made Of" would be a good addition to "The Measure of a Man", showbiz_liz's suggestion. One of the very best stories of the original series, "A Taste Of Armageddon", is about a computer-simulated war. That would allow you to discuss the themes in "Terminator" (computers starting, controlling a war) without showing a R rated film in the classroom.

MichelleNoel's "The Day The Earth Stood Still" is a good choice. The original story, "Farewell to the Master", though, has some frightening implications that the movie doesn't delve as deeply into. Full text is here.

There's also a novelty album by Victor Lams, simply called "Robot Love", which was promoted with the creation of "Love Your Robot Day" (February 7th). I think the standout here is the song about Shelly the U-Scan robot (who "always worked at the grocery store"), but YMMV. Rather than just a one-shot thing, it evolved into a legitimately celebrated holiday that is used to encourage kids to read more about robots, or engage in robot building. NY Public Library collected these books for librarians to spotlight on Love Your Robot Day.

On that last note, too, why not invite a local robot-building group (either at the university, or using students the same age as yours) to either present to the class, or have them visit the lab to see these robots close up.
posted by mitschlag at 12:53 PM on January 13, 2014

what about video games? Portal and Portal2 have a few AI characters; Glad0s and Wheatley, and a lot of robot sentries and such. Portal has a pretty complex plot, is really fun to play, and if my experience with my nephews is anything to go by, if you talk with teenagers about video games, they will think you are the coolest person ever.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:50 PM on January 13, 2014

Since I'm old, I can suggest Asimov's The Bicentennial Man (a bit schmaltzy, but still good, tho I dont recommend the movie...) and David Gerrold's When Harlie Was One

And I have a copy of the del Rey's The Runaway Robot. Email me with your address if you want it.
posted by Billiken at 10:26 AM on January 14, 2014

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