Paper Minds: Revisiting the Icon of the Robot in Science Fiction

Author: Ryan Morrison

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 7 Apr 2025.

Morrison, Ryan, 2022 Paper Minds: Revisiting the Icon of the Robot in Science Fiction, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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From golem folklore to modern robots, anthropoidal automata exist across centuries of intertextual history. In 1979, Gary K Wolfe’s iconography of science fiction provided a definition for the science fiction (SF) incarnation of this figure, the ‘icon of the robot’, a compelling entity representing the barrier between a known figure and its unknown implications. Wolfe’s icon of the robot draws its evocative power from both fact and fiction — enmeshed within the SF mega-text, each new robot echoes its predecessors, real or imagined, intertwining scientific fact with science-fictional possibility. The robot has many guises, from the machinic, to the anthropomorphic, to the godlike. This progression, considered inevitable in the Golden Age SF analysed by Wolfe, is echoed in contemporary visions of the Singularity, the predicted moment where artificial intelligence (AI) will accelerate in complexity beyond human capability and understanding.

But while the implications presented by the rise of the robot in 1979 are not the same as those in 2021, familiar tropes about the robot endure, along with the outdated values echoing in its past. Without due interrogation, the icon of the robot can reinforce the values of a mechanistic universe — a universe in which mechanism is superior to organism — inviting dehumanisation by relying upon exclusive definitions of humanity and devaluing the organic in favour of the machinic. Reflecting the liberal humanism of Golden Age SF, these values are easily visible in the known elements of the icon of the robot, as the icon draws power from its preceding works. But these values also shape the unknown futures that the text explores through the icon’s presence, implicitly reinforcing liberal humanist values by considering logic superior to illogic, and by discarding the messy variability of flesh for the abstract perfection of information.

I argue that it is possible for SF that evokes the icon of the robot to critique the mechanistic universe that accompanies this icon. To demonstrate this, I conduct a close study of two works of SF — Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), an award-winning space opera that explores the consequences of systemic individuality; and Paper Minds, my creative artefact for this thesis, which interrogates the political issues surrounding how we depict and implement intelligent technology through my allegorical reimagining of golems. Through the machinic and anthropomorphic aspects of the icon of the robot, these works both evoke and subvert the icon of the robot, valuing organic difference and embodiment over machinic replication and prescriptive definitions of personhood.

This thesis begins with my manuscript, Paper Minds. A novel-length genre-bending adaptation of Yudl Rosenberg’s seminal Jewish folkloric work The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague (1909), my novel recontextualises golem technology into familiar machinic and anthropomorphic forms. By evoking the icon of the robot within the rich history of golem depictions — the golemic mega-text — Paper Minds recontextualises our longstanding relationship between technology and discrimination, and draws attention to the conditional nature of personhood and the role of the body in the creation of mind.

Keywords: artificial intelligence, robots, SF, science fiction, golem, machine ethics

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Lisa Bennett