Is Tik-Tok a robot?

Tik-Tok (Oz)

Tik-Tok (Oz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a question for science fiction fans: Can Tik-Tok, who made his debut in 1907, correctly be labeled a robot?

If it’s been a while, or if (like me until recently) you didn’t get past the first book in the Oz series, Tik-Tok is the amazing, clockwork brass man who can speak, move, and think. Like a clock, he must be wound up for each of these tasks. Tik-Tok was created by two marvelous inventors in the fairy land of Ev, one of whom later painted a river so real he drowned in it, while the other invented a ladder tall enough to reach the moon–to which he one day moved for the scenery. Tik-Tok is introduced in the third book Ozma of Oz, where he helps Dorothy overcome some difficulties, and features again in the book that bears his name, where he helps a girl name Betsy.

About a decade after Tik-Tok first appeared, the term “robot” was coined by a Czech writer. The coinage of this term wasn’t a stretch in Czech: robota (I’m told) is Czech for “servitude, forced labor.” In a famous play (R.U.R., 1921), Rossum’s Universal Robots manufactures robots to do hard labor for humans. Like much fiction involving robots (and now A.I.), this one doesn’t go well for the humans.

As a student of language, I know that the meaning of a word isn’t limited to its origins. And I wouldn’t want to claim that a thing doesn’t exist before there’s a word for it–or, better, before our word for it was invented. What this question is really about, for me, is whether Tik-Tok can be said to have the essential properties of a fictional robot.

My sense is “no.” For one thing, Baum left a good bit of room for magic in the invention of Tik-Tok. This is typical of Oz and its environs. Think of the Scarecrow. The thing that seems to make him alive is his presence in Oz. The Tin Woodman, who is a man (not a mechanical man), could obviously not live in our world either. And while Ev is not Oz, it’s still described as a fairy land. Its Princess has 30 interchangeable heads. In other words, we’re in the land of faerie here, not science.

English: Color silkscreen poster for Federal T...

Federal Theatre Project presentation of “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)” by Karel Čapek (1890-1935). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By contrast, science fiction stories are as a rule devoid of magic. In fact, you could say that one of the premises of SF is “What if …?” What if technology let us do this? What if someone invented this? What would happen if …? But the “What if” question has nothing to do with magic. If you’re breaking the laws of science, without pretending you aren’t, then you’re likely writing something other than science fiction.

Maybe even more to the point, when Baum creates Tik-Tok, he seems to be doing something fairy tale tellers have been doing for a long time: taking things from the environment and infusing them with human qualities. Instead of birds that sing in human language, Baum takes a clock and makes it into a small man. You have to wind it up, but when it tells time, it uses human language (Baum even makes that joke, early on). The function of humanized things in such tales is almost always to help the human hero or heroine. Fairy help is almost essential to the genre; without it the human cannot succeed.

By contrast, the robots in R.U.R., and countless SF tales since, are there to enable us (as readers and writers) to explore the nature and limits of our humanity in a world dominated by technological progress. There, the environment itself changes (“What if …?”), and the robots emerge as part of that environment. While machines might become “more human,” they do so to problematize the term “human.” (Think Data in Star Trek.) How shall we live in this strange world of gadgetry and automation? What’s our use within it? These are just some of the many questions that can be (and have been) explored through the introduction of robots into a SF story.

So, in that sense, Tik-Tok also fails to function as a science fiction robot ought to function. From the point of view of the story and how it works, he’ s more accurately a fairy tale creature than a science fiction one. To me, that makes all the difference.

Even so, there’s something about Tik-Tok that, from other points of view, makes him seem to look and act just like a robot. He’ll show up in many lists as an early “robot in literature.” So what do you think?

Here was my source for the term “robot.”


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