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COLUMN: ROBOT IS THE NEW VAMPIRE

In the popular mythology of vampires, these undead creatures are difficult to kill, but it isn’t impossible. A wooden stake through the heart will do it. Sometimes the barest touch of a ray of sunlight will reduce them to ashes or even make them explode. If you want to get Old School, you can immerse them in running water. Then there’s always the old standby: decapitation. That seems to work on everything.

But in the mythology of the publishing business, there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop them. Expose the clichés of one, and ten more crawl from the grave to take its place. Publish a vampire book that’s a little too gory or a little not gory enough, a little too sexually explicit or a little too chaste, and you’ll still sell more than any of your traditional fantasy titles, and leave science fiction so far in the dust it’s stopped even being worth discussing. This is the only necessary explanation for why there are so many vampire books out there.

But I belong to what appears to be a vanishing minority of both readers and writers. I don’t read vampire books, nor do I write them. Though in all honesty I have read some vampire books, including the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, but I can’t remember one I actually liked. I’ve seen vampire movies, and my favorite is The Hunger. I tried to watch True Blood, but wandered off when the vampire was disabled by a silver necklace. And I did write about a vampire in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, but they made me do it.

Firing off more and more vampire books seems to still be working for publishers, but that’s just not good enough for me—and as the author of video game novelizations, please trust me that I’m not entering this argument as a pampered artiste who feels anything that’s fun and entertaining is beneath him. I won’t have fun writing about vampires, so I’d rather be one of the desperate few looking for the fad that will eventually replace them.

This is occupying the creative and marketing minds of an awful lot of people in publishing, believe me—enough so that it’s drawn the attention of The Onion in their hilarious article: “ ‘Minotaurs The New Vampires’ Says Publishing Executive Desperate To Find New Vampires”.

They’re kidding about minotaurs, but I’m not kidding when I offer up this alernative to the blood-sucker:

ROBOTS.

Yeah, you heard me. Robots are the New Vampire.

Stories of mechanical men date back into ancient times, from the myth of the golem and so on, but the word “robot” was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek (1890-1938). Robots grew in prominence in the twenties and had a sort of peak in the 1950s then again following the global success of Star Wars. Though not every SF author has made use of them, they’re as popular a genre archetype, and take at least as many forms, as spaceships and other imagined technologies.

I’ve written at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my fond memories of the young reader novel The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey, and I’ve enjoyed robot books from Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot to the shared-world series Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. Robots are appearing in newer books like Boilerplate (GFTW’s review) by Paul Guinan and Anna Bennet, and Paul Collicutt’s Robot City Adventures graphic novel series for young readers, but so far they aren’t quite burning up the best sellers lists.

That being the case, you may be wondering how I came up with robots as the next vampires.

Here’s how:

I want them to be the next vampires.

And they have a lot going for them . . .

  • Like vampires, they come in endless varieties—in fact I think they come in potentially far more varieties than vampires.
  • They can be both hateful villains or loveable heroes.
  • You can dress up as a robot for Halloween. Okay, maybe not as easily as a you can a vampire, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right?
  • Robot toys are more fun. That’s just a fact.
  • If you’ve been keeping up with theories of the approaching singularity, you’ll have realized by now that you’re more likely to actually be a robot at some point in the future than you are to be a vampire.
  • Robots can have sex, just like vampires. I’ve seen Westworld.
  • You can have robot hunters, just like vampire hunters. Philip K. Dick called them Blade Runners.
  • Robots are Hollywood friendly. I’m thinking of recent movies like Terminator Salvation and Surrogates, not just classics like the Robby the Robot vehicles Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. The first vampire movie is generally recognized to be F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu(1922), which is still among the best vampire movies ever made, and the first movie robot, Maria in Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis, shows up only five years later in 1927.
  • One of the things that publishing likes about vampires is they can be adapted for a wide audience from fairly young kids (A Practical Guide to Vampires) through the teen years (Twilight), and on into adulthood (Anita Blake). Kids love R2D2, surely there’s a teen robot out there somewhere, and I once had the misfortune of sitting through part of a bit of anime porn in which a guy has vigorous sex with an alien robot. It was awful, and I’m still scarred by the experience, but hey, someone took them there.

I could go on for days, but after all that I guess I now have to admit that the book I’m currently working on, a contemporary urban fantasy, is closer to a vampire story than robots. But I’d be willing to promise to get to work on a robot novel next as long as at least some of you do the same. Maybe if the community of authors got together behind robots we could, by sheer force of submission, make it happen for our mechanical brothers.

And if I’m the only one who votes for robots, okay, give me an alternative. Minotaurs? If you say so. Martians? Count me in. Harpies? Sure. Mummies? Wrap one up for me. Steampunk samurai? Why not?

Just please don’t try zombies again.

—Philip Athans


Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the just-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York in 1964 he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.