PC Pinocchios: Parents, children, and the metamorphosis tradition in science fiction

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


What viewer of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) can forget the moment when the computer HAL 9000 faces his death and sings "A Bicycle Built for Two"? The melody winds down as HAL loses consciousness. It is a poignant moment in which the technological creation, a conscious being whose increasing power we are supposed to fear, regresses to the point of his seemingly innocent creation. The melody reminds us that he was created like a child and sung to by a creator who must have deployed the song as, on the one hand, a recording test and, on the other, a nurturing lullaby. It is a moment that asks us to consider our parental responsibilities and changing relationships to the beings we create, whether organic or machine. In fact, the film asks us to consider the fine line between machine and organic creations through lyrical scenes in which the human characters wear and depend upon various technologies to eat, breathe, and move. The technological child is one that human beings create again and again, only to regard it with horror as it seizes the tools of the father and rises to power in a classic Promethean or Frankenstein plot. Suspicion of the technologies we spawn has become a folklore plotline in itself. A recent spoof of 2001 in the children's cartoon Recess (ABC/UPN, 1999-present) reveals that both parents and children are expected to identify with aspects of this story ("Schoolworld" episode). This plot has become a parable that seeks to teach parents and children to consider the mysteries of creationism and child development. But it also regards these mysteries with suspicion, asking us to consider the relationship between children and technology. Are our technological creations offspring that we shun because they threaten our authority and bring about our obsolescence? These questions are overtly addressed at the end of the introduction to AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), adapted from Brian Aldiss's 1969 story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long." In AI, David (Haley Joel Osment) is a cyberchild, programmed to love its parents but then rejected by them. The film posits the idea that, while we can create a simulated child with emotions and consciousness, it is much more difficult to find parents who can return a child's love and raise him or her with a proper sense of ethics, responsibility, and morality. The technological child evokes our sibling rivalry; once we recognize its independence as a created being, we seek to disconnect it. AI depicts the sibling rivalry between two children, one cyborg and created to love unconditionally, the other an organic child who looks partially cyborg due to assistive devices for walking. Who is the monster in this film? The father/programmer, the computer, or the human sibling, a symbol of the peer community that fears it? Frankenstein's creature, HAL, and Spielberg's artificial child are Adams of our genesis impulse. They are born in innocence and tragically engineered by environment to act in particularly monstrous ways. What does it mean to develop as a human being, these films ask? How have technological creations come to stand for our sentiments about universal patterns of child development, today's computer-aged children, and our own flaws as a parenting culture? It is perhaps not surprising that the dawn of the computer age features science-fiction films with the Frankenstein theme of a child surpassing the powers of the creator, who, like the divine being of Genesis, built it from clay, simulated flesh, or wires and electricity. The theme of development from tabula rasa to monster or outcast explains the genre's popularity with family audiences, particularly teenagers. In many films, machines simultaneously replace or threaten youth and mirror the concerns of both young people and their parents regarding human development. For example, in Disney's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), a student, Dexter (Kurt Russell), merges with a computer and becomes intellectually gifted but forgets basic human values such as friendship. In Tron (1982), another Disney film, we encounter the cosmic battle between a corporate father figure and his progeny, both a computer that displaces its creator and a hacker whom the father has dispossessed because of the hacker's gaming skill. In WarGames (1983), a teen hacker is asked to develop a relationship with and reform a computer system that was created as a child substitute but has become monstrous and needs to recall the innocent play of early childhood. The restoration of a proper childhood is echoed in Terminator 2 (1991) and Warner Brothers' animated feature The Iron Giant (1999), both of which represent the computerized machine as a reprogrammable child that only needs the touch of a real child to learn how to play, feel, and respect life.1 Perhaps the most childlike cyborg of all is Data (Brent Spiner) of Star Trek's The Next Generation (syndication, 1987-1994). In Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), Data obtains lessons from a real child in how to play, something that these films feel is necessary to aid wholesome growth and human understanding. AI is only the logical culmination of the genre's testing ground for what makes a child-creature human and how we can resolve our conflicted feelings toward child development in the computer age, which seems to have robbed children of innocence and allowed them to surpass adults in skill, power, and authority. The theme of childlike machines and machinelike children is pervasive enough to justify what Mikel J. Koven calls a "motif spotting" methodology (2003, 183), the enumeration of traditional folklore motifs in what I see as the dynamic, modern storytelling of popular film. While the relation of film to traditional folk storytelling is a question for folklorists, as a children's literature critic, I feel that an analysis of pervasive motifs across cinematic and literary texts can illuminate ambiguities (particularly toward children) localized in our collective, cultural unconscious. In my view, the films that I discuss are coming-of-age tales that endlessly replay the power of the transformation folktale to capture our Western view of child development. Computer characters grow from a state of puppetry, given genesis but not freedom, to adulthood, which means determining their own destiny and understanding the meanings and responsibilities of being human-but not without growing pains that are experienced as monstrous. These science fiction films appropriate the traditional folkloric motifs of magical transformation (D0-D499), magic objects (D800-D1699), and creation of man (A1200-A1299) through the motif of inanimate objects coming to life. These narrative elements are common to folk-based stories of child development that have become staples of children's literature in such stories as Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio ([1881] 1996) and Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit ([1922] 1958). As animals and folk heroes have traditionally functioned, toys are simultaneously child characters and more than children. They stand for children when they embark on journeys to understand their relationship to their creators and develop their own sense of consciousness and agency; characters undergo metamorphosis when they have explored and mastered what it means to be human.2 A tough adolescence typically intervenes in this quest for mastery. Science-fiction films have adopted the toy-folklore combination to express similar themes with computer progeny. While computer "children" function as folk heroes, exploring human development in the universal sense described by Donna Rosenberg (1997) in her collection of folktales for children, they also express our wonder at and fear of today's computer-age children, who threaten adults with obsolescence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFolklore/Cinema
Subtitle of host publicationPopular Film as Vernacular Culture
PublisherUtah State University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780874216738
StatePublished - 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'PC Pinocchios: Parents, children, and the metamorphosis tradition in science fiction'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this