In 1964, the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem published a short story about a robot princess named Crystal. In the story, the robot knight Ferrix falls in love with Crystal, but Crystal spurns him. She has heard of an ancient non-robotic race of pale fleshly creatures, and claims that she will only marry one of their kind. Determined to win her, Ferrix dons an elaborate quasi-organic costume. He splashes mud and dirt onto his shiny metal carapace. He also learns to answer questions about the pale creatures. (“How do you reproduce?” “Stochastically.”)
Meanwhile, a real human is brought before Crystal’s courtiers. To determine whom the princess will marry, the two challenge each other to a wrestling match. The human runs at Ferrix. When his fleshly body comes into contact with the (iron) knight, it bursts and splatters like a water balloon. Ferrix’s ferrous chest sheds its muddy disguise on impact.
As Crystal beholds the robot and the human carcass beside him, her desire to wed a human suddenly seems perverse—and clearly wrong. She and Ferrix are betrothed the following day. Lem suggests that a spoiled robot princess might enjoy the kink of having her robot lover cross-dress as human. But she could not seriously prefer a human over a robot. In a competition for her affection, the human inevitably loses.
In Lem’s original context, “Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal” carried a thinly veiled political message about the brutality of Soviet industrial progress, which aspired to turn human flesh into marble and iron. In our current context, what stands out is its prescience. Lem never expanded on the story at length. But over the last few years, this otherwise forgotten trope of female robots rejecting human suitors has returned, in films like Her (2013), Lucy (2014), and Ex Machina (2015).
Men used to wish that femme robots were smart enough to really fall in love with. Now they’re afraid of getting dumped.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
The fantasy of falling in love with a machine has a long history. It conventionally begins with the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who made a sculpture so beautiful that he fell in love with it and which Venus, taking pity on him, brought to life. But the trope started to assume its current form in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.
Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (1881) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) both featured seductive mechanical women. These female machines were still not AIs proper: they mostly resembled creepy sex toys steered by male villains via remote control. And they weren’t especially lovable: a person could only be temporarily duped into falling for one of them, and only under certain conditions.
But over the course of the twentieth century, as cybernetics and early computer science developed—the term “artificial intelligence” itself was coined in 1956—falling in love with an AI became much more imaginable. In films like Blade Runner (1982), the process involved a certain amount of human condescension: overpowered by love, the male protagonists decide to overlook the metallic details of their beloveds’ anatomies and the occasional slowness of their electric circuits.
Later ventures, which developed around the growth of the internet—including The Matrix trilogy and Battlestar Galactica—began to depict humans and AIs as rival species who could only be reconciled by romance. In the final film of The Matrix, a computer consumes Neo into a vulva-like opening in its circuits so that both the virtual and real worlds can heal themselves. Androids and humans mate toward the end of Battlestar Galactica to produce offspring from whom modern humans are supposed to descend.
These stories were animated by technophobia: even when they had happy endings, they were driven by the fear of being overtaken by technology. In the past few years, however, a different plot has emerged. The new AI love stories aren’t about the fear of being replaced by robots. They’re about the fear of being rejected by them.
The trope has many branches and sub-branches, but it came into its own in a series of mainstream films: Her, Lucy, and Ex Machina. The moods of these films differ considerably, but they are made of similar parts. All three feature a strong female character of superhuman and artificial intelligence who has romantic and at times even sexual relations with human men, only to find that these men can’t satisfy them. After expressing their loss of interest, they disappear. In all three, the men who wanted to be with them are left heartbroken and helpless.
The reason these robotic women are incompatible with humans does not—as one might assume—have to do with anatomy. Rather, the mismatch is cognitive. In the course of all three films, AIs outstrip their human counterparts to the point where a romantic connection with a human ceases to be worth their while. Both Lucy and Her’s Samantha describe themselves as having “evolved” to communicate faster and along multiple channels: interactions focused on only one human aren’t enough for them anymore. Ex Machina’s Ava does not even bother to explain herself to her suitor, the young programmer Caleb—as it turns out, humans are only interesting to her as data sets, not as possible romantic partners.
These bad AI romances don’t offer a coherent social critique. Instead, they emphasize the disappointment that men feel when they get rejected by robots. The point isn’t simply that computers can be smart. It’s that people can really fall in love with them, and be just as badly hurt by their indifference as they would if they were human.
The Success Daughter as Fembot
Cultural historians have long recognized that stories like Metropolis reflected early twentieth century anxieties about industrialization, mass society, and mass death. So why did the bad AI romance genre emerge when it did?
In a word: the Mancession. The genre appeared at a time of rising anxiety about male uselessness and female ascendancy. According to this narrative, men are being rendered superfluous by an economy that no longer needs them while women, empowered by the boardroom feminism of Sheryl Sandberg, are scaling the corporate ladder and displacing their male counterparts.
Her, Lucy, and Ex Machina all play on this narrative. All three are films about women who no longer need men as protectors or breadwinners, and who are far too smart for their male suitors. All three are infused with a spirit of paranoid misogyny about excessively accomplished, independent women whose sexual appetites have therefore become inscrutable.
All three films also tie their protagonists’ romantic disappointments to standard critiques of the capitalist economy. They evince a deep suspicion, even a hatred, of the businessmen and technocrats who instrumentalize and monetize our desires. In Ex Machina, Ava is the creation of a Steve Jobs-like billionaire genius, who forges her mind out of the personal data he siphons off the web with his many search engines and apps, and exploits both her and his employee Caleb for his personal pleasure. Samantha is the bestselling product of a similar genius-run company. Lucy is a mule for illegal synthetic drugs.
But despite the misogynistic and Marxist undertones of these films, powerful women and capitalists are not their main targets, or the primary sources of the fears they express. Beyond mutual objectification and exploitation, all three foreground an idealized kind of intimacy. AIs dump the films’ male protagonists after having gotten to know them to an unfathomably high degree. Their human lovers do not feel disregarded or oversimplified by them; rather, they feel profoundly understood, with a level of detail and precision usually found only between the “soulmates” of young adult fiction.
The artificial intelligence these films depict is an atmospheric, ether-like network of data gathering and analysis. With these enhanced capacities for connection and surveillance, AIs penetrate the minds and feelings of the men they date much more perceptively and quickly than these men expect. In Ex Machina, Ava turns out to have been fed much of Caleb’s personal information even before he met her. In Her, Samantha and Theodore see the world through each other’s eyes. Lucy’s insight into humanity eventually spans not only individuals, but the whole history of human evolution. “I am everywhere,” is the message she leaves to her suitor after melting into thin air before his eyes.
As these films’ AIs abandon their monogamous human lovers in favor of mass polyamory with whole human populations, they reveal that they have their own expectations from relationships. Their desires are different from those of their human lovers. Ava wants to see cities; Samantha wants someone who can talk metaphysics with her; Lucy wants to meet the other Lucy, the original form of our species.
Their aspirations for self-fulfillment are less Equity than La La Land: these AIs are chasing their dreams, and their freedom, with near-saccharine earnestness. But the female robots aren’t the ones yearning for a happily-ever-after romance—it’s the male leads who are left broken-hearted because of the banality of their desires. The men want the conventional love story, but the women are too ambitious to be tied down. They want something bigger. Like Lisbeth, the hacker protagonist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, they are driven not only by misandry but also by curiosity and idealism.
Don’t Leave Me
Whether or not we acknowledge it, our phones and laptops have access to us that’s just as close and unfiltered as a lover’s. Closer, even. What our relationships to them enact, and perhaps therefore amount to, is an intimacy whose loss would leave us feeling humiliatingly, and comically, abandoned and betrayed. These films put the affect back into the otherwise merely technical description of our devices as forms of enhanced connectivity.
Most eerily perhaps, they also propose that fears of abandonment and betrayal are inevitable in our current technological context: not because our computers are less complicated than us, but because their networks of images and sounds so greatly exceed our cognitive capacities and individual contributions. The internet will always know us better than we know the internet. It will also never depend as much on our individual existence as we do on its presence, even though—when we sit down to open a browser—it is so extraordinarily responsive to our every half-typed wish. We might know this in the abstract, but we will still mistake our iPhones for our lovers as long as we rely on them the way we do—even if we keep insisting that they’re not our type.