Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future by Ana Matronic
Ana Matronic is a huge fan of robots: “I love robots … The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favorite things … doesn’t everybody love robots?” Just in case some don’t, or aren’t sure if they do, she’s gathered together over a hundred of her personal favorites in a lavishly illustrated compendium titled Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future. It’s a pretty thorough gathering even if, as she readily admits, some might disagree with a few of her omissions.
Matronic divides the book into two sections — fictional and real-world robots. The fictional she further divides into the following categories (I’ve listed a few examples after her category titles):
- Servant, sidekicks, and saviors [R2D2/C3PO, Robby, Rosey, Baymax]
- Murderous malfunctions and Fascist Machines [Skynet, HAL, Cylons]
- Artificial hearts [Twiki, Stepford Wives, David from AI, Crow/T Robot/Tom Servo]
- Iron Men and Killer Babes [Tik-tok, Maria, Gort, Iron Giant]
- Video Games and Comics [Astro Boy]
- Self-Aware Circuits [Replicants, Data, Marvin, Bender, R. Daneel Olivaw]
- The Human Machine [Darth Vader, Borg, Daleks, Doc Ock, Robocop]
As you can perhaps see, she casts a relatively wide net, using a loose definition of robot so as to include for instance the disembodied HAL or the cyborg Robocop. Again, Matronic is happy to cop to using a wide definition, recognizing that others may quibble with some of her inclusions in terms of their “robot-ness.” I was pleasantly surprised at the several that were unknown to me, such as “Master Yan Shi’s Mechanical Man” and a few others. Beyond that handful, it’s pretty much a roundup of the usual suspects as the above list can attest to.
The real-world section moves historically and here again some may find her definition a little baggy. She begins in the eleventh century with Su Song’s Cosmic Engine (picture a five-story mechanical clock) and moves forward in time through the automatons of the 17th and 18th century, the robotic arm that so transformed factories in the 1970s, drones, and eventually into the bipedal humanoid forms we see on cable news playing soccer or serving liquor.
Each individual robot gets a full page of text with a facing illustration/photograph. The text is breezily conversational and personal and at times a bit overly or repetitively enthusiastic (lots of “favorites” or “mosts”). Those looking for a more academic style or an in-depth analysis of robots in film and literature would do well to look elsewhere. But as a quick survey of a lot of the most influential robots in literature, film, or TV and a brief dip into some historical ones as well, Robot Universe is a fun read, and certainly Matronic makes for a wholeheartedly energetic and passionate guide.