Back on April 13, 2016, I saw a comic book on the shelves that bewildered me. It was a special one-shot for Marvel’s Star Wars line called C-3PO: The Phantom Limb, and it explained how everyone’s favorite protocol droid acquired his mismatched red arm in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The $4.99 cover price killed any passing interest I may have had, and I imagine, judging by how big that stack of copies was week after week, I wasn’t alone. I mean, it’s C-3PO — who honestly wanted to read a threepio-centric comic book? Let alone pay five bucks for it?
It made me think though. Some editorial decision was made to tell this tale. Someone convinced a group of executives that people cared about C-3PO, that this one-shot would muster sales. If The Phantom Limb‘s number four slot for April 2016 sales is any indication, that someone wasn’t entirely wrong, either. Sure, it sat on the shelf at the comic shop I frequent, but that doesn’t mean my shop is indicative of the national comic book market. It just means my local comic patrons and I weren’t interested. Why?
Because C-3PO is a 60-year-old protocol droid that was built by a child on a backwater planet.
Think about it. By the time the events of The Force Awakens roll around, Threepio is pushing 60 years of active service, if not more, and he’s still considered useful. That idea doesn’t make sense. As an effective droid, Threepio was outmoded the day he was built by a child. As we see in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, little Anakin Skywalker doesn’t have much to work with. The kid’s pretty handy when it comes to building machines, but he’s living as a slave on a backwater planet where everyone trades in hand-me-downs and used tech. There are no factories, no R&D laboratories, and no science facilities on Tatooine. The parts of the planet that aren’t unending stretches of desert populated by moisture farmers, jawas, and sandpeople are nothing more than cutthroat spaceports. Tatooine is so hostile and backwards, the Separatists would rather put a droid factory on Mustafar, a planet that’s really just one gargantuan active volcano.
The point is, C-3PO was never an elite model to begin with, and after 60 years of existence in a galaxy where technology is most likely in a constant state of flux and progression, Threepio never really stood a chance. There are thousands, millions, billions of stores across the expanse of the Star Wars universe packed with newer models that have way better specs than what C-3PO’s packing. They’re also developed by companies and professionals who specialize in robotics. Not kids. So why keep him around? Why not toss that old hunk of junk in the trash?
THE BIG FLAW
The big flaw in our thinking when it comes to robots in science fiction epics is that we place too much emphasis on them. Since we don’t have robots as cool as the ones seen in the movies, we think they’re important. But they’re not. Robots are nothing more than glorified smartphones, and in a universe as rich and vibrant as Star Wars, for example, they’re wholly disposable. We see this with the way the Separatists’ droid armies are wantonly slaughtered. The attitude among the Separatist leaders is to keep pushing forward, no matter how many dumb droids it takes. They can always build another one.
When you crack your phone, what happens? You buy another one. When a more powerful laptop comes out, what do you do with the old one? You sell it, toss it, or donate it. These machines hold no sentimental value for us, and as soon as they stop performing at peak efficiency, we get rid of them. Part of this is due to how our society works. When a new piece of technology comes out, it starts off super expensive, but as more companies try to duplicate it and as our ability to cheaply and affordably build it improves, the market price drops. It becomes second-nature to just go out and purchase a new one. We don’t stop to think about all of the good adventures, fun nights, or memorable moments we shared with those devices. The outdated nature of the technology overrides any connection we may feel. Why would robots be any different?
One movie that takes this idea to heart is I, Robot. In the film, there are robots everywhere, many of which are performing the menial labors we can no longer be bothered with (like walking the dog or taking out the trash). When a new model rolls out, the older ones are dumped into a shipping crate somewhere and forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a cruel sentiment, especially since the machines in I, Robot sport human-looking faces, but it’s one we collectively share every single day.
Let me ask you something. What happened to your first iPod?
I often think about kids’ toys and how most robots made for children are built out of plastic. It’s cheaper. It’s easier to hold and carry. It’s more efficient for the mass consumer. As robots become more and more commonplace in the average household, I think they’ll follow this line of production. Cheap. Lightweight. Affordable — so affordable, one wouldn’t think twice about buying a new protocol droid if C-3PO ever broke down or went missing. It’s the way of things. It’s how our culture operates…
…and it’s also the idea behind the book I’m currently working on. What would it be like to live in this world? What would it look like? How would the robots feel? Would there be a caste system? These are some of the questions that keep my pen scrawling along. It’s what wakes me up at night, in wonder, turning the gears in my brain as we step ever nearer to this being a possible reality.
The working title is “Rocket and H.I. 97 Destroy Everyone”. Stay tuned…