Futuristic Tokyo attacked by giant robotic ants, calls for robotic boy savior
The year is 2030 AD. A frustrated scientist has just suffered his latest failure in creating a humanoid robot and now increasing pressure from his colleagues are turning him into a short-tempered and explosive character. His son, young Toby, suggests that he focus his attention on creating a boy robot.
“A boy robot!” the scientist proclaims, his mouth moving quite differently from how it should, opening and closing less times than are necessary to produce the requisite syllables to form these words. He continues without punctuation, his mouth alternatively drawn wide open and completely closed: “Why didn’t I think of that it was right in front of me the whole time well Toby you’ve done it I think this is the answer…”
A few moments later (though months on in the story) the scientist’s video phone rings and we see Toby, clearly dejected, on its screen. Another punctuation- and pause-free conversation ensues in which we learn that the scientist promised to take Toby to the zoo but is too busy working on the boy robot and it will have to be another day and but dad it’s always another day. Then Toby is driving a robot car (!) and crashes and is tragically killed.
But this is 2030 and Tokyo, where tragedy in one’s personal life is the missing ingredient to unlock science’s great mysteries. The now-inspired scientist finally completes his greatest work: a human robot. He names it Toby, but we know him better as Astro Boy.
Over the next few months and years, Astro Boy learns what it is to be a both boy and robot. He’s a uniquely emotional robot, with all of the love of young Toby and the rocket feet, laser eyes, and ass-canon power of a state-of-the-art machine. He looks for crime as he flies through futuristic Tokyo, a world of shapely coloured steel and reflective glass buildings, hover cars, orderly pedestrian crossings, groomed trees that blend perfectly with the urban landscape, and helpful robots at shopping malls and gas stations.
As a child growing up and watching Astro Boy in the 1980s, both 2030 and Japan – which I only vaguely understood to be a part of this world, thinking instead of Tokyo as part of the future – were impossibly far away. Here was a place that, for all I knew, already looked like it did in these cartoons. And here were the 2000s, a new millennium, a future unimaginable, in which everything would surely change.
But for Astro’s creators, 2030 was an even more distant future. The original manga comic series was published in the 1950s and the TV series, an adaptation of the comics, hails from early 60s. Astro Boy (or Tokyo Atom, as he’s known throughout Asia) is a product of that same era in Japan that saw artists imagining radioactive creatures fight larger, more ridiculous radioactive creatures. Japan was in rebuilding mode after the Second World War and its artists were foretelling the dangers of nuclear commitments and of automated, flying tanks suddenly going berserk -. tThe latter perhaps a more abstract imagining of the processes of automation overtaking the nation’s factories.
I know these things now. I can place Astro Boy into its cultural and historical context and understand its genesis, even its ethos. But I can’t reconcile its vision of the future, now a mere 19 years away, even having been to Tokyo and some of Japan’s other largest cities. Sure, Tokyo gives us black-flipping robotic dogs and a spiral staircase that doubles as an electric piano, and other parts of Japan – most notably the electronics graveyards of Osaka, where old technology goes to die – hint of something coming next, coming soon, but Astro Boy’s world is still a long way off.
There’s some debate as to how accurately the prediction of the future in any work of science fiction is meant to be. Huxley’s and Orwell’s worlds are metaphors, exaggerated conclusions of the thought processes of their eras and of the end-points of their worlds’ technological paths. Likewise the works of less dystopian, more hard-science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, which warned us of robot uprisings and the dangers that lurked inside of asteroids. Whatever the legitimacy of the science that propels the story, the works were cautionary, almost always.
The simple stories of Astro Boy reveal a fairly nuanced morality, similar to Asimov’s robot novels in its approach to discussing the merits of rapidly advancing technologies. It’s understood within the world of Astro Boy that humans are off-limits to well-programmed robots, but that when a robot goes bad – often because its programmers made it bad – the world can rely on its good robots. Inherent good creates inherently good products; inherent bad destroys us. But what’s our real-world, modern day equivalent? The iPad versus the PlayBook? PlayStation versus Xbox? Are these our robots, and – if so – which ones will save us?
But of more concern to me, as I approach my 30s, my age of productivity, my 2030, is this: Where are my rocket shoes, my flying car, my robotic teacher? The world of the future that was drawn for me as a child still isn’t near. I wait.
|Drew Gough is one of the co-founders of Thought Out Loud. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, writes about places he has been and wants to be, and makes a living slogging generic content for syndicated publication.|