Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LB: Robots and Us

"Great strides have been made in recent years in the development of combat robots. The US military has deployed ground robots, aerial robots, marine robots, stationary robots, and (reportedly) space robots. The robots are used for both reconnaissance and fighting, and further rapid advances in their design and capabilities can be expected in the years ahead.

One consequence of these advances is that robots will gain more autonomy, which means they will have to act in uncertain situations without direct human instruction. That raises a large and thorny challenge: how do you program a robot to be an ethical warrior?"- Michael Carr, from "The Artificial Morality of the Robot Warrior” at the Britannica blog

I was struck by how Carr’s observations here, in a piece about real robots being used right now to fight real wars, tied into the themes and plot of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and, more recently, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. I invite you all to check out Carr’s article whether or not you elect to read this recent review of Urasawa’s Pluto I’ve posted to one of my other blogs.

Pluto Volume 1
By Naoki Urasawa adapted from material by Osamu Tezuka
Viz Media
200 Pgs, PC, SC, $12.99
ISBN# 1421519186

By the time that manga pioneer, Osamu Tezuka was beginning to react creatively to the more sophisticated gekiga manga that had developed in the wake of his own influence, he was largely finished with the property that, fairly or unfairly, defines his legacy both in Japan and abroad, Astro Boy. This is not to say that Astro Boy lacks in gravitas or moral complexity. In contrast, however, to later works Phoenix or Buddha, Tezuka shows less of an impulse to drive the often grim foundations of his boy robot story to the extent of their logical, ethical conclusions. Fundamental inequities persist between humanity and machines because they must in order to justify the next story and then the next one after that. These realities may be enough to throw a slight damper on the emotional timbre of yet another otherwise triumphant victory for Japan’s most revered boy robot but it is certainly not enough to make him question his obligations to either his robot brethren or the often-flawed humans that created him.

In Pluto, the reader is offered the chance to change history or, at least, to view it from a different perspective as provided by artist and creator Naoki Urasawa. While one might be tempted to see this as a cultural analogue to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (National Icon Undergoes Radical Reimagination at the Hands of Contemporary Proponent of Bad-Assedness; Creators Roll in Grave.), the opening volume suggests that it is anything but by the ways that Urasawa’s differentiates Pluto from its source material in Astro Boy.

It begins with a question of scale. The story is drawn from a single episode among thousands that make up the Astro Boy series. If the work is to be a long-form serial, this necessitates first that Urasawa’s pacing be positively glacial in contrast to Tezuka’s frenetic original. The question then becomes: With what do we fill the extra space? Urasawa’s choice is two-fold; first, to explore in greater depth the ethical questions posited but never fully explored by Tezuka in the original and, to give every character in the story the same depth of backstory as its original protagonist, Astro (Atom) enjoyed.

Urasawa’s unique storytelling voice (comparable here to another of his works available in English, Monster) is on display to devastating emotional effect. His segments tend to build tension slowly, grounding in the often mundane aspects of ordinary life, but always progressively moving towards some event of unspeakable horror that is more often felt in its impact than witnessed directly. Where Tezuka imagines that the world would have Great Robots like it does Wonders of the World, Urasawa dwells on the relationship each one might have with the people who created it to save them. He appropriates Tezuka’s underlying theme for the Astro Boy series as a body of work, the elusive nature of consciousness, and uses it as the fuel to drill into the socioeconomic ramifications of thinking machines returning from a brutal war to reintegrate into the countries that have deified them as war gods.

With only one volume from which to pronounce a judgment on Pluto, the best I can really say is, “More, please.” Having established his credibility with English-translated manga readers with Monster, Pluto’s uniform excellence and savage drama come as no surprise. The only question lingering as I opened the book was whether Pluto would read like a loving but unnecessary retread of a time-honored classic or something vital unto itself. For me, the answer was resounding and unmistakable and I’m now very enthused, lord willing and if the creek don’t rise, to let Urasawa kick a hole in the top of my head as often as Viz will put a new volume of this out on the market.

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