Before there was Syfy, there was sci fi, a genre of fiction and film that appealed to proto-techies and fans of fantasy. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when a few lucky illustrators got gigs designing covers for sci fi paperbacks, there were two names that stood out: Frank Frazetta and Frank Kelly Freas. While Frazetta favored mythological scenes set against dramatic skies, planets, and universes, Freas had a more surreal touch. He struck a precarious, sometimes unsettling, balance between the hyper-real and the fantastic, sort of a Salvador Dali of science fiction novel covers. One such example is the artful and strange cover for Tom Godwin’s The Gulf Between:
Also strange and a bit chilling is the caption for this illustration, which reads “Please… fix it, Daddy?”
Does the image above look familiar to you? This might be because the rock group Queen used it as the cover for its 1977 smash hit album News of the World, which featured the songs “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.”
According to the QueenZone website, “Roger [Taylor] is a huge fan of science fiction, he had the comic book…in 1977, he brought the idea to the table…the band contacted Freas and he agreed to alter it for their cover.”
The odd robot (that holds a dead man) is described as looking like a child who killed a bug and then glanced up in confusion, not understanding what it has done or even the nature of mortality. Something about the image and its theme struck a chord among people, and it resulted in La Hotte, a French company, manufacturing a robot prototype of the design. One of these robots is now available on eBay. Take a look at this Very RARE Frank Kelly FREAS ROBOT Prototype LA HOTTE Queen News of the world:
This robot has the qualities of a Freas illustration; there’s the twisted whimsy of a robot that has human characteristics and in fact looks almost sympathetic, until we recall the damage it has wrought. On the other hand, how much is the robot to blame, as it only does as it was programmed to do?
This conflict, in fact, is part of the drama in Godwin’s original sci fi novel. The website bestsciencefictionstories.com summarizes the plot thusly:
“Ever since the war, when Knight served under his childhood friend Captain Cullin, the two have not gotten along. A big reason for the rift is that Cullin believes men are better soldiers when they obey orders absolutely and show no initiative for themselves. Knight disagrees, and after he is out of the military he goes to work on the smartest computer in the world. Well, guess who thinks that it would make a pretty darn good soldier? Yep, Captain Cullin – who is so obsessed with the fact that he makes some very drastic choices to secure the perfect soldier. But will he change his mind when he sees the end results? Perhaps.”
The reviewer adds that the highlights of the novel include “the parts about not knowing what would happen to men psychologically as they journey into space, or how computers can’t think for themselves but only follow directions…” I suppose this concept of only performing as programmed translates to robots as well, though these reviewers are clearly ignoring the pervasive capabilities of HAL 9000, the famous computer from Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. Just like Freas’ robot, HAL 9000 has destructive tendencies. Here is a choice HAL 9000 moment, courtesy of imdb:
Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave Bowman: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?
HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.
HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.
Dave Bowman: HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!
HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
Look around you at home and at work. Most likely you are next to computers of some form, be it automated teller machines or an iPhone, an ultrabook laptop or a programmable thermostat. You understand what buttons to push to retrieve cash or cool down the house, but what would you do in the face of a computer-led rebellion?
When all else fails, go with what you know: Ctrl+Alt+Del.