Us Robots

by Sam Rees

I was fifteen when I first knew I belonged to the robots. Starry-eyed, baked, boiling hot and hormonal, stuck on a train going nowhere. Stuck between two points, which I cannot for the life of me remember now, but my best guess is those points were called Newmarket and Kennett. Hot, blistered fields of gold corn either side of me, white polo shirt on my back and school bag at my feet. In my hands an iPod, and in my ears, the robots.

To stare at that boy/man at an objective distance would be to see one utterly engrossed in sonic imaginings. And somehow the summer’s oppressive air and the joint fogging his brain add an intensity to the experience. The dirt and resin under his fingernails, the mop of greasy hair. He is with himself in that moment, no other life forms detected on Planet Adolescent. Just the touchdown of some strange spacecraft on the landing strip of his brain, out step two helmeted things. And then the boy notices with mild amusement: the spaceship they arrived on has landed right on top of several mediocre indie bands, mashing their acoustic guitars into splinters, wiping the smug grins off of their frontmen’s faces by dint of crushing those faces and the skeletons they are attached to underneath its futurist weight. The robots had landed in my brain, and there they would stay.

Stepping out at Cambridge, after my commute through outer space, I transfer to a bus, allowing myself to press repeat on the track I just heard. The weed is doing great things to my dumb brain right now, and pockets of light burst in front of my eyes. I can’t tell if they are made of fire, or if they are made of hope. Either way it’s all happening aroundtheworldaroundtheworldaroundtheworldaroundtheworld.

Youthful archaeologists are the worst. They stumble upon some tried-and-tested part of the canon and act as if they have dusted off the rarest and most amazing of riches, only known to themselves, whilst everyone even ten years older than them tries to act impressed whilst thinking ‘yeah…everyone knows Daft Punk…what’s your point?’ But for me in that first year they were both Discovery and Homework; a Great Thing that I found all on my own, and then set about initiating myself in. I attuned myself to what was surely a projection on my part but I assured myself was a true and accurate representation of their worldview, constituting a certain aesthetic vision which was wholly serious about the flimsiest of themes, and unrelentingly silly about those things others felt were not to be taken lightly. The ‘music has to mean something, okay?’ crowd had no response in the face of their precious punk being made to look utterly daft. 

And what’s more, it did mean something. One has two superpowers as a teenager in late western capitalism. Culturally, we have no end of resources to feed the first of these magical gifts: the ability to see the darkness and fear in all things. I can give you Joy Division, or Radiohead, or Pink Floyd, or Nirvana, or in more recent years any number of nihilistic SoundCloud rap visionaries who speak to this endless tide of darkness and pain. It is a feeling we’re not allowed in day-to-day adult life. It should be cultivated and protected. But it was overdeveloped in me. I needed reminding of my second superpower: the teenager’s capacity for extreme bouts of ecstatic joy, energy and excitement. Their ability to travel to outer space on a train. To see colour in the night sky. Daft Punk were my key to this particular room, and entering it, I realised it was a doorway into a cosmic freefall, I slipped off the edge and plummeted, and plummeting I still am. You see? It does mean something. Endless retrospectives will now tell me how important they were for the development of house music, of how influential their production was, what it all says of the Parisian DJ scene. I don’t fundamentally care about that. They were my robots, I discovered them, and they came to take me away from where I was, so that, on my return, I was changed.

Change, constant change. Shifting, reformulating, moving into the future, and refusing to be anything other than excited by that. The robots taught me all of this. As I prepared to take the big step out of school and into university, they came to help me get lucky. To dance away the piranhas in my mind. That track, a folk song for the floor, a hymn of the house party, can only mean for me one thing: love, spiralling around and around all who hear it, connecting us, charging our souls, sending them off into flight, pink and golden clouds of kisses lifting me into the air, powered by a force from the beginning. 

Then it’s 2017 in the middle of a field. The song comes to me again, slower, sadder, but in some sense also faster, better, harder, stronger. A crusty notion of familiarity is awoken in my brain, June-time haze setting all around me as people dance and hug and cry, that blurring in the air that nobody truly understands. Through it all, on the desert plain that I envision myself being on, the robots walk, swirling edifices of dust climbing into the air as a wind from the distant future sweeps past in their wake. It’s okay, I know they’ll be back. They’re off down a wormhole in my mind, but they’ll be back. 

The robots are also utopians. They take for granted in their vision that capitalism will fall, that we will jet off into space, and that the transhumanists are benign. They offer us an electric dream of the future which is an interstellar disco. They give something worth fighting for and seem to reassure us that all this backbreaking work that you call your life will one day melt away in a event-horizon tropical beach party, and there will be fun to be had. For now, they’re content to look after the weirdos who trudge around city streets on crutches, their eyes peering through canine faces. But their ultimate vision is their own psychedelic popworld extravaganza, and hell, we’ll work out the finer details some other time.

It must also be noted, however, that the robots are also sad. There is an intangible, mournful quality to the expressionless expressions of their helmets, as if built into the shape of them is a sorrowful face. When they lower their heads, and seem to give up, we realise that there is a deeper melancholy to their situation:

Touch, sweet touch, you’ve almost convinced me I’m real’

I am now drinking alone a few years ago. Except ‘alone’ is a curious word to use in this instance. I feel overcrowded with company: demons of fear, and overwork, and frustration, all cluster around me. They remind me life has not gone to plan. That I am not enough. That this is all foolish and should be packed in immediately. Cars move past on the street, planes fly overhead, the city networks of commerce and communion shift along all around me, synapses firing off between buildings, ideas flung from rooftop to rooftop. The interconnectivity of all things rendered clear to me, alongside my own detachment from the very system I observe.

I unbutton my shirt and pull back the skin on my chest. The flashing lights and circuitry of my internal mechanisms clicks and fizzes with electricity. The matrix data bank I have been programmed to call my memories registers and reorganises every billionth of a second inside my mind. No one around me sees. I must be careful, there is a mist of drizzle descending, illuminated by the lights of the passing-by traffic, and my circuits do not like the rain. I call it pain, or mourning, but really these are all experiences fed to my programming by my maker, the machine I am does not, cannot feel. 

Us robots are sad because we cannot be like you. Perhaps this is presumptuous of me, perhaps you are a robot too. Perhaps you look around you at the flashing lights and the joys of a city, the laughter on people’s faces, the hurried way they walk, the crying of babies in prams pushed by haggard new fathers and think: this is beautiful, but I’m not a part of it. Perhaps you only remember this every now and then, perhaps most days it is possible for you to get along just fine forgetting you are a robot. Perhaps you get out of bed at a reasonable time, and make yourself a reasonable breakfast, and think about all manner of things which convince you that you are human after all. 

But then a song comes on the radio, or in your headphones, because who the fuck listens to the radio anymore? Synthesized voices bark commands at you over galactic beats. But hidden beneath the sound waves is a code that only you, and other robots, are sensible to. A code contained within the sonic fireworks, the drops which make your skin burn and tingle, which seems to be saying: ‘you my friend, are a robot’. 

I wonder now what has happened to my robots. I wonder why they have chosen to leave us. I wonder if there is a war to fight on their home world, or some intergalactic crisis which we here are not aware of. Maybe the various empires of the universe are having a meeting to decide what to do about that troublesome planet ‘earth’. My strongest guess is that there are parties on other worlds, discos at the other side of a nebula which they are booked for. Perhaps there is a system out there which resembles a club strip in Ibiza, each planet a different venue. If so, I can understand why they were tempted away. 

The very last track on the very last album that the robots made for us is called ‘Contact’. Captain Eugene Cernan, the last man to have walked on the moon, says to us through a crackled recording: 

Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about
And it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby
It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing
It’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion
Because the flashes come around almost on time

As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock
About maybe ten or twelve diameters
I don’t know whether that does you any good
But there’s something out there

And then an interstellar burst of maniacal synths takes us post-ozone to the very last edge of our planet’s territories, where the darkest of blues turns delicately into the lightest of blacks. Where the night begins. Where the party starts.

For the time that the robots were with us, I wish to thank them.

It did me a great deal of good, to know there was something out there.