Adrian Graham

CC-TV camera from the film Demon Seed
Demon Seed

Monsters and robots

In Demon Seed (1977), obsessive scientist, Alex Harris, leads the team that created Proteus IV, a robot with sentient AI. The machine wants more than self-awareness. It wants to be evolve beyond metal and circuitry. It wants to be human – to feel what it means to be alive.

The name Proteus IV references the Ancient Greek god Proteus, who was both all-knowing and a shape-shifter. Proteus was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, book IV. Like the monster in Frankenstein, Proteus IV quickly learns that ‘he’ (the robot speaks with a male voice) is his own master. He seeks to be more than just a servant of scientific research. He desires a human form with a human identity. The machine’s self-awareness brings both incredible problem solving skills – and a burning survival instinct.

Unlike the creature in Frankenstein who is given ‘life’ by his ‘master’, Proteus IV creates it for himself. To become human, Proteus IV imprisons Susan Harris. (She’s a child psychologist and the wife of the research scientist leading the Proteus IV project.) The robot sexually assaults her, stealing her eggs and DNA to create a new AI/human hybrid. In the novel Frankenstein the ‘monster’ is described as an evil ‘creature’. Through the language alone it’s clear that he’s a force for bad. The monster is referred to as an ‘abomination’, a ‘fiend’, and a ‘demon’. This notion operates within a religious framework. One where only God is supposed to create life. Anything else, not created by God, must therefore be intrinsically evil. The monster even describes himself as a ‘fallen angel’. In other words: Lucifer.

Rejected by humanity because of his terrifying appearance, Frankenstein’s monster reacts with bitterness, and resorts to violence. He is conscious of his otherness, of his disfigurement, much like the characters in Freaks or John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Disfigurement is often used in storytelling as a way of representing an evil personality, externally. The violent monster looks like a mutation or a half-beast – it doesn’t resemble an attractive, healthy, ‘normal’ person who might grace the covers of Vanity Fair or GQ. When not used to express a character’s darkness, disfigurement represents their inner turmoil, for example David Aames in Vanilla Sky. This stereotype of disfigurement runs contrary to much contemporary thinking where disability and physical disfigurement is not viewed as ‘otherness’, but as people who are whole in themselves, as humans.

These stories are warnings rather than celebrations (or a celebration that turns into a warning). They are about technology running amok. They are tragedies. They are stories about a world out of balance, out of control. A world where technology promises amazing potential, but brings unforeseen problems.

Journal   About