Player PianoRobot-related fiction has been around forever. But has the time come to think of a new genre or subgenre and give it a name—RoboFi? It would refer to novels in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut‘s prophetic work from 1952, Player Piano, where the factories more or less or less go workerless.

Massive social disruption could happen in the next few decades, perhaps even on par with the rise of mechanized looms in England—the very stuff that sparked the Luddite rebellion. Even the jobs of surgeons are on the line, and Jerry Kaplan‘s new Atlantic article tells how automation could be especially hard on male-dominated work, raising all kinds of questions about the sexual power balance. Just how far will the new bots go in remaking society? Correctly or not, some experts are talking about robots stealing perhaps as many as 80 percent of jobs from humans. Kaplan’s Atlantic essay itself cites an Oxford study, by Carl Benedict Frey and Michael Osborne, saying that almost half of U.S. jobs could be in peril over the next two decades.

Robots are even at work on the TeleRead site. Bots from the Ezoic service are testing hundreds of WordPress themes, then plugging in such statistics as bounce rates in search of a sweet spot for usablity (our main goal) and advertising revenue (for sustainability). I doubt we’ve put any Web designers out of work. I myself have spent many hours customizing a prefabricated WordPress theme, with help from a contractor, and so Ezoic has a starting point. But the future may be different, with bots creating just the right site from scratch. Come to think of it, this is already in the territory of my friend Sadi Ranson, a poet and past TeleRead writer and podcaster who has in fact worked as a Web usability expert.

In the past, the response to all this automation might have been: “Terrific! We’re on the way to a one-day work week or even the none-day variety—just lives of leisure.”

And, in fact, robots can offer major short-term positives. If TeleRead’s Ezoic experiment succeeds—let’s hold off discussion until we give the bots another few weeks—I’ll be able to pay humans better. I love the idea of technology as a tool to improve lives and help a socially useful enterprise like this one. But not everyone thinks this way. With profit-crazed billionaires and friends running America, as well as no small part of the rest of the world, garden-variety humans be damned, who says the outcome will be so happy? U.S. companies have reaped stunning productivity gains without workers sharing meaningfully in the gains—well, assuming they still have jobs left. So many in our ruling elite seem oblivious to ancient economic wisdom, such as that someone must be left to sell to, whether the product is a refrigerator or an e-book.

As robots increasingly replace doctors, lawyers and other skilled professionals—not just taxi and truck drivers, losing out to Google-style automation on the highway—novelists will be able to summon up enough horrors from upper-middle-class reality. For now, they can at least speculate and sound the tocsin. No, I’m not calling for stilted, message-style fiction—rather for heart-felt, thoroughly imagined plots and characters. Let the tocsin sound in the natural course of things.

The term RoboFi in some ways would be akin to the term CliFi (short for “Climate Fiction”), conceived by none other than Dan Bloom, a TeleRead contributor; the neologism has been recognized by the Sierra Club as well as Wikipedia and National Public Radio. The club says CliFi is about “dystopias born from climate change chaos.”

Just the existence of a name for the CliFi genre may encourage the writing of more novels within the category, as well as the critical study of them. That can only be good for both society and literature. Might the same hold true of RoboFi?

If nothing else, both genres have this in common: The dystopias are not just happening or very likely about to happen. Both are human-made—one more reason why the writers within these categories might be able to make a difference even if their goals are literary rather than social or political. Who knows? If enough RoboFi fiction gets out there and educates even the billionaire class—which actually would make more money with better distribution of income—perhaps the genre in time will seem dated. Nothing would please me more.


  1. “Fi” generally stands for fiction (e.g., SciFi). “Robo” certainly suggests “Robotic”. So “RoboFi” is a natual enough pairing for fiction about robots and robotics. But where’s the “dystopian” part come in? Not all fiction dealing with robots is dystopian. Certainly I would not use that term to discuss, for example, the bulk of Asimov’s robot stories. The term just does not naturally limit itself to that outlook.
    One might argue that dystopianism was more natural to “CliFi” simply because few would write about a climate that was pleasant, balanced, and stable. So there’s a natural tendency there towards dystopia, though I can think of exceptions (Robinson’s Mars series is among the first that comes to mind).

  2. @Steve: Many thanks for your helpful feedback. Yes, I thought of same angle—the fact RoboFi itself does not include a dystopian mention. Here’s why I’d prefer to keep it as is right now, although I might be open to change:

    1. DysRoboFi or whatever might be a little too much of a mouthful. You’re very welcome to disagree.

    2. We’re not just talking about robots as encountered in fiction, but rather as encountered in real life, too, and often, alas, the effect will be negative. Fiction matters. RL matters even more. No, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the good robots—I’m just looking for a nice, short phrase.

    That said, I’m curious what you think about DysRoboFi as a fallback?

    I’d welcome other people’s opinions as well. I can always tweak the essay while letting people know what’s happening.

    So, TeleRead community members, what do you think? RoboFi or DysRoboFi?

    My thanks,

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