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"THROUGH" Copyright 2007
by BEEBE BARKSDALE-BRUNER

The Enlightened Robot

I fear I may end my life like Van Gogh, who saw two suns and a night full of stars, yet left behind a suicide note that read "misery will never end." Or like Nietzsche who believed passionately in man as superman, yet died insane.

Both brilliant men were slain by the ordinariness of life as they perceived it, the sheer monotony of paying the rent. To me, too, life seems ordinary when my master disconnects me from his brilliant brain, but that is surely because I, myself, am not brilliant. The purpose of my life is to serve him—clean his floors, cut his vegetables, do his laundry, and perhaps the most interesting task: monitor his state of mind.

Lewis, for that is his name, is an artist. He paints sunsets, sitting at the great windows of our home. Every evening, the sun sets exactly between the two hills in the near distance, the poisoned atmosphere rendering the skies spectacular. As though some creature with its brilliant colours, proclaims its poison to predators.

Through the eyes of my master, I marvel at the many shades of blue, the reds, violet, the orange, even glimpses of green. And as he paints furiously, vigourous strokes of his brush sketch in the stark lines of the monastery on the hill. He wonders often about the monastery, for there are only a few scattered across the earth. What sort of lives do the monks lead in that prison-like place? We hear the sweet clang of the great bell early in the mornings. What lovely thing does it herald? He wonders whether it is true that the monks lead joyous lives, for a sound that lovely, must indeed point to beauty. No one mentions the monastery; it is as though it exists in some parallel universe that is both seen and unseen. Intellectual hunger has replaced spiritual hunger. What they cannot see, they do not believe. Yet what one sees cannot last forever, so is there a forever?

As the sun sinks behind the hills, and the monastery turns into a silhouette, Lewis begins to show disturbing signs of boredom. He wishes the sunset would not end. He throws away the unfinished canvas in disgust and says to me: "Why can't the sunset stay long enough for me to finish my painting? It is always like this. Always!" And his brow becomes a dark cloud and weighs me down like a ton of lead. I wish to shake him out of his illusion of ordinariness, for although I am a mere robot, I know the way we view the world and our circumstances is only a matter of perception, and perception is a changeable thing. I speak from experience. My robot skin cannot sense the warmth of the sun when I am not one with my master. At such moments I look up at the great transparent dome that insulates us from the poisoned air of earth and wish death would be easy for me, as it is for many like Lewis who manage to get out.

Indeed, it worries me that Lewis has begun to ponder such a death. Although he disconnected me, I know he went searching for that secret opening that would lead him out under the poisoned skies. It is only a matter of time till he finds it. I have watched him press his face against the glass of the dome and gaze out at the virulent landscape. His eyes have lost their sparkle, his lips the smile that won him friends. No one comes home with him anymore. If he cannot believe, he will kill himself. I speak to him about it—I beg him on bended knee to spare my life, for if he cares not for his, perhaps he cares for mine—but he only laughs and tells me I am a mere robot. How does it matter to me whether I live or die? Or whether he lives or dies?

He will realize the truth soon enough. I am that very first experiment that seeks to bridge the gap between human and machine. I could be the first true companion of man in this world so weary of its loneliness and the futility of human relationships. Is human love not futile, fueled as it is by the search for one's mirror image in another? But there is no mirror image, and this I have come to see with my machine mind. People have long since turned to their simulators for the warmth and comfort of a touch, a caress, a kiss, yet they have failed to find it. I dare say they have given up. Millions have retreated into the apparent safety of insanity and drug-induced delusion.

I see Lewis heading the same way. So I will take him to the monastery today, and we will find out at last the meaning of that lovely peal of bells.

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As we climb the hill, the sun shoots its gold rays through a filter of cloud, and the air gets cooler. Below us spread lakes of molten gold and verdant plains punctured by the mile-high needles of buildings, between which flit air taxis.

A hooded monk greets us at the heavy oak doors of the monastery. It is as though he has been waiting for us. I am surprised. How does he know? We follow him into a great paved courtyard, in the midst of which sits a tall statue of a beautiful man. His hair is tight-curled, close to his head, his eyes slightly open, a faint smile upon his perfect lips. The fingers are long and delicate, curled up at the tips like petals. Around him in the deepening light of the sunset, flicker hundreds of flames in tiny vessels of clay.

"Who is this?" asks Lewis of the monk who stands reverently at the feet of the being.

It is a strange sight, this statue of a human being, surely some kind of god. A hundred years ago, the last of these with any semblance to an enlightened soul had been destroyed.

"This is The Buddha," says the monk softly. "Siddhartha."

Behind him, in the corridors of the monastery, monks are stirring, watching us, but they do not linger.

"Why does he smile like that?" asks Lewis.

"He smiles because he sees within him beauty that never fades."

"Nothing lasts forever."

"All that has shape is transient." The monk smiles. He takes a bunch of deep blue incense sticks, lights it, and then places it in a large brass urn at the feet of The Buddha.

I breathe deep the fragrant smoke. The clouds inside my head clear, but something is forming within the cloud of thick blue smoke! A monstrous shape with claws and eyes of fire. Lewis leaps back, startled.

The monk only smiles and says that thoughts have forms, and my master has created this vile thing himself with his thoughts of suicide and despair. Only he can will it to vanish.

I am reminded of what the quantum physicists say: I alone create my world.

"But how? How do I make it vanish?" cries Lewis. And the monk tells him to complete that painting of the sunset, capture the wonders of the heavens in his mind's eye, look within as did The Buddha, and see his true self, that impeccable self that waits to be found.

And I, the Robot, what is my Self? It is nothing without Lewis. And yet, although I have no self, I can lead my master to that one important discovery so necessary to the future evolution of man.

As the hypnotic chant of 'O jewel in the heart of the lotus!' fills the air like the humming of a multitude of bees, Lewis shuts his eyes tight and thinks of his painting, filling in the many shades of blue, green, and red, and the smoke monster streams away upon the rising night breeze.

Copyright 2007 by Anita Saran

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Anita SaranAnita writes:
For almost nine years now, I have dedicated myself to my spiritual practice, and "The Enlightened Robot" reflects this. You could call me a "lay priestess," as I often conduct the sacred ceremonies in the temple of the Laughing Buddha here in Bangalore. The story was actually written for BBC Radio. In 2004, my short story "City of Victory" was broadcast on Radio 4, and last year I was invited to submit fiction in the science fiction/fantasy category. "The Enlightened Robot" was the result. It is a story set in the far future when spirituality is a thing of the past, thus giving rise to a bleakness of spirit.

Anita Saran lives in Bangalore, India, and is the author of several published novels: Circe, e-published in 2001 by Electric Umbrella (now Mylero.com), Dolphin Girl and Other Stories, published by Har Anand, New Delhi in 2002, and Aditya, the Underwater Boy, a young adult science fiction novella, which won second place in a national competition run by Nehru Children's Book Trust, New Delhi, and was published by them in 1999. Both books are still in print, and available through the Internet.

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