Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992

Jo Alyson Parker

Gendering the Robot: Stanislaw Lem’s "The Mask"

They therefore as to right belong’d,

So were created, nor can justly accuse

Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate;

As if Predestination over-rul’d

Thir will, dispos’d by absolute Decree

Of high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed

Thir own revolt, not I:...

Paradise Lost §3:111-17

I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man and hide himself in deserts, but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein §20:158

Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. —Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1:168

Now, the movement in and out of gender as ideological a movement back and forth between the representation of gender (in its male-centered frame of reference) and what that representation leaves out or, more pointedly, makes unrepresentable. —Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender 26

It is a given that the modern-day proliferation of texts dealing with artificial intelligence — particularly that occurring in humanoid form—has injected new life, so to speak, into the question of what it means to be conscious, what it means to be human. Paradoxically, what is quintessentially human (the effort to know oneself) is perhaps reflected most clearly in the mechanical simulacra inhabiting much current film and fiction: in Robocop’s inability to go home again, Data’s struggles to come to terms with what makes him different from the rest of the Enterprise crew, and Roy Batty’s futile howl to the "blade runner" against the programming that will terminate him; in Rudy Rucker’s self-replicating Boppers and Stanislaw Lem’s increasingly humanoid washing-machines. Androids, cyborgs, and robots prompt us to ask whether a machine could manifest consciousness, take on life of its own, transcend its programming. They make us ponder whether our performances could be distinguished from theirs—whether we could in fact be replaced by our creations, just as the false Maria replaces the true in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps one of the earliest films to posit the reduction of humanity by the forces of technology.1 At the same time, these mechanical simulacra cause us to consider whether we are ourselves programmed—products of cultural forces, manifestations of the discourse that inscribes us. Is our own free will as spurious as that of the machines that do our bidding? In effect, intelligent mechanisms bring to the fore our difficulty in defining the nature of the subject; indeed, they problematize the very notion of the subject as such.

In its considered, cogent exploration of these issues, Stanislaw Lem’s "The Mask" is characteristic of much of his fiction—seemingly just another robot fable in Lem’s ongoing enterprise to chart the boundaries of artificial intelligence and our own. But, uncharacteristically, Lem adds an additional layer to his exploration of consciousness—that of gender. Generally, Lem’s fiction is saturated with the masculine, appearing almost as a parodic extension of the traditional SF realm as male, filled with phallic spaceships and militaristic heroes. When a female does appear, "she" turns out to be that which is not. Rheya, the most fully realized feminine character, is not a woman but a simulacrum of one, created from Kelvin’s memories (and hence determined by his story of the past) and made of the same stuff as the mimoids, the replications of indeterminable meaning that Solaris produces.2 She is another (an other) Rheya par excellence. Lem’s other major feminine character appears in "The Mask," wherein Lem assumes the persona (the mask, if you will) of a robot who in the first half of the story wears the form of a beautiful human female and in the second metamorphoses into its essential metallic form—significantly, a form that resembles a praying mantis, the female of which kills the male during the mating act.3 Thus "she," like Rheya, is only a representation of a woman, not the genuine article. Yet it is the very artificiality of the woman that enables Lem to examine the issue of gender programming, and the non-human nature of the robot that enables him to address the human condition. As we explore the issue Lem raises, however, we must keep in mind that Lem’s address of the human condition is skewed toward a male norm, that the artificial woman ends up subsumed under a rubric of artificial intelligence in general.

"The Mask" serves as a site for exploring contemporary notions of the subject, weaving together in the fictional pattern strands that reverberate in contemporary psychoanalytic and social theory. The robot’s self-division (given literal form in the scene wherein the beautiful female cuts herself open to reveal the metallic monster within) is emblematic of humanity’s, and its gender programming is a synecdoche for the programmed nature of all human response. The robot experiences the otherness of language and entrapment within another’s discourse, a situation which mirrors that of the human subject according to Lacanian thought. The robot’s experience of gender allows us to see that what we regard as intrinsic male and female responses may be determined instead by cultural programming. Lem thereby draws our attention to the programmed nature of all human response and undermines our notion of a self that is self-determined. "The Mask" foregrounds sexual desire as a locus of power relations, thus affirming the Foucauldian claim that "power and desire are joined to one another" (Foucault 81). In effect, Lem’s interrogation of the programmed nature of gender and sexuality enables him to strike most forcibly at the power structures that give rise to all forms of cultural programming. Although Lem leaves indeterminable whether we can escape the determinations imposed by our culture, he nonetheless makes clear that only by pulling off the mask and revealing the mechanisms of power do we have any hope of resisting them.

As we will see, however, the affinities between Lem’s fictional narrative and those "non-fictional" narratives of Lacan and Foucault include not only what they represent, but what they leave unrepresentable—a female "subject." In effect, "The Mask" is played out in a narrative field of the male and the neuter. What Alice Jardine argues in regard to Lacan might be applied to Lem’s story: "he never moved beyond the male subject as absolute metaphor" (161).4 Thus, although "The Mask" elucidates several important facets of the human condition, we must remain aware that it is a human experience that is dealt with therein.

In Lem’s story, the robot (a literal mechanism of power) has been engineered by an exemplary representative of an authoritarian system, the ultimate father, God’s appointed representative on earth—the King. He has programmed this creature to ensnare the nobleman Arrhodes with "her" beauty and then, upon revealing its metallic form, first to drive him mad and then to destroy him. A Promethean figure, Arrhodes has threatened the King’s absolute authority: "he had dared to raise his hand against the throne"; he "had sought to bestow freedom upon the people in opposition to the King’s will"; "he possessed the water of life, and with it could raise up martyrs" (221). For assuming the prerogative of the god-like King, Arrhodes must die. Although the King who has decreed Arrhodes’ death appears as but a shadowy figure within the story, his influence is pervasive. As the robot realizes when it considers the possibility of walking away from Arrhodes, the King’s least gesture can control it: "had I succeeded in escaping that zone of attraction, the merciful King with a twitch of his signet ring, with the corners of his faded eyes, pupils like pins, would have attended to me soon enough, and I would have gone back" (189). So absolute is his power that it would persist after his death: "even were [Arrhodes] to lay violent hands upon His Majesty, that would not set me free; the King, if the King was indeed behind this, was still so far removed that his death could not alter my fate in any way" (209). Like the workings of a clock (to which the robot at one point compares itself), the mechanisms of power continue to run, even in the absence of the maker.

We might regard the King as a literal representative of Lacan’s "phallic signifier." His authority (or potency) has a distinctly phallic quality. The King has managed to create life (or what passes for it) by himself, without the agency of the mother. We might say that he has, in fact, appropriated the role of phallic mother, as the robot’s natal passage through "the round opening without light" suggests (182). Phallic instruments infuse the robot with life, as we see in the following passage, a transmutation of the first verse of Genesis:

In the beginning there was darkness and cold flame and lingering thunder, and, in long strings of sparks, char-black hooks, segmented hooks which passed me on, and creeping metal snakes that touched the thing that was me with the snoutlike flattened heads, and each such touch brought on a lightning tremor, sharp, almost pleasurable. (181)

The King’s instrument of death is also phallic in nature: although the robot appears in the mask of a woman and even its bug-like form is associated with the female of the species, it administers death with its stinger. When the robot rebels against its fate in a Lear-like frenzy of denial ("but no, no, no, no, no, no"), a similar stinger effectually deprives it of "life":

I saw a light, something budded out in front of me, like the small head of a snake, except that it was metal. A needle? I was pricked, above the knee, in the thigh, from outside, a tiny, barely noticeable pain, a prick and then nothing.

Nothing. (206)

The prick silences all opposition; it is "the prick that stilled rebellion" (208). The phallic snake is the symbol of the King’s power over life and death.

Of course, to a certain extent, Lem’s own "construction project" has affinities to that of the King he holds up to our scrutiny. Like the King, he has bypassed the female. He explores gender programming without acknowledging the agency of woman, much as Lacan and Foucault explore the technology of desire without examining the female difference. We might apply to Lem’s story that characterization that Hélène Cixous makes in regard to male writing in general, "woman never has her turn to speak."5

Certainly, by (en)gendering the robot in the first half of the story, Lem causes us to consider the way in which the otherness of language problematizes the notion of the subject. After its "birth," the robot experiences a simultaneous awareness of language and gender:

And then, with a sound not heard but sensed, a tenuous string snapped within me and I, a she now, felt the rush of gender so violent, that her head spun and I shut my eyes. And as I stood thus, with eyes closed, words came to me from every side, for along with gender she had received language. (182)

Gender and language are imposed upon the subject, and, as the dizzying, schizophrenic shift between the first-person and the third-person feminine pronouns indicates, they occasion a split between what might seem to be an authentic self and a self that can only constitute itself through the agency of the other. This is not to say that sex differentiation is not prior to language, but the notion of gender itself derives its particular meaning in a culture only through language. Lacan’s discussion of the determining nature of the symbol provides, in fact, an appropriate gloss on the robot’s plight:

Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him "by flesh and blood"; so total that they bring to his birth, along with the gifts of the stars, if not with the gifts of the fairies, the shape of his destiny; so total that they give the words that will make him faithful or renegade, the law of the acts that will follow him right to the very place where he is not yet and even beyond his death.... (68)6

By making the King responsible for conferring both language and gender upon the robot, Lem literalizes the Lacanian argument that it is "the symbolic father whose name initiates and propels the signifying chain" (Bowie 134). The Robot’s own relation to language thus holds a mirror up to our own, the self-alienation appearing in its speech representative of the self-alienation that is intrinsic to the human subject. But, again, it is an alienation based on the norm of the male. Certainly, in his portrayal of the King and the manifestations of his power, Lem is indicting the ultimate patriarch. However, Lem’s indictment of monarchy/patriarchy does not so much call our attention to the oppression of women as to the oppression of people in general. The King/patriarch is thus representative of all absolute wielders of power, and the robot, of all those programmed to aid such power in sustaining itself. Whether a female experience might be different, we are not allowed to know.

When the robot embarks on a quest to discover its identity while in its female form, it is repeatedly frustrated. "And who was I?" it asks (186), "Where did I come from?" (197). The plurality of memory implants ("the daughter of Count Tlenix, the Duenna Zoroennay, the young Virginia, orphaned in the overseas kingdom of the Langodots by the Valandian clan" (187)), each seemingly culled from fantastical romances, militates against the robot’s struggle to discover a coherent self: "could I once have been a plurality of branchings, which then merged in me as rivulets merge into the current of a river? But such a thing was impossible, I told myself. Impossible" (198). The passage reminds us of the impossibility of extracting the authentic self from the multiplicity of cultural representations with which we are subjected from birth.7 Trapped in the inevitable paradox of self-referentiality, the robot cannot rely on the self as a tool to determine what the self is: "Everyone knows it is impossible to turn the eyeball around, such that the pupil can peer inside the skull" (194). The mind cannot be trusted (the robot may be mad); the body cannot be trusted (the robot finds its actions alien). Thus neither empiricism nor rationalism serves as a system that can lead to the truth: "But if I could trust neither my face nor my mind, against what precisely could I harbor fear or suspicion, when outside of the soul and the body, one had nothing?" (200). The untenable position of solipsism may be the only alternative: "Could it be that I was imagining everything, that the ultimate reality here was an old, unemotional brain, entangled in the experience of countless years?" (203). Finally, the robot turns to the mirror in a deliberate attempt to fix identity: "On the evening of the third day I finally set about discovering who I was. Dressed for bed, I stripped in front of the pier glass and stood naked in it like a statue" (212). Self can be apprehended only through another medium—in this case, the mirror.

The robot’s experience before the mirror serves as a literalization of the Lacanian "mirror stage." Of course, the robot comes into existence with a sense of both its distinction as a separate entity and a foreboding of its lack of autonomy, unlike the human infant, who prior to the mirror stage exists in a state of oceanic undifferentiation; further, it does not experience, to use Lacan’s terms, the "I precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject" (Lacan 2). But the robot’s methodical examination of its external form and its subsequent self-evisceration bring to the fore "the alienating destination" prefigured by the mirror-stage "Gestalt" (ibid). In a travesty of a childbirth scene, it discovers that the self it wants to fix is a fiction, that "I" reveals itself as the other: "The severed layers separated, like white leather, and in the mirror I saw a silver, nestled shape, as of an enormous fetus, a gleaming chrysalis hidden inside me, held in the parted folds of flesh, flesh not bleeding, only pink" (213). The robot plays out the culmination of the mirror-stage experience: "the assumption of the armor of an alien identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development" (Lacan 4). The beautiful woman is a mechanical object. Paradoxically, the authentic self is one that recognizes its own lack of authenticity, as the robot realizes:

I dared not touch the silvery surface, immaculate, virgin, the abdomen oblong like a small coffin and shining, reflecting the reduced images of the candle flames, I moved and then I saw its tucked-in limbs, fetal-fashion, thin as pincers, they went into my body and suddenly I understood that it was not it, a foreign thing, different and other, it was again myself. (213)

Significantly, it is still it. The dropping of the mask signifies the death of the subject; self is exposed as object.

The passage is a vexed one, however, bringing to the fore the contradictions, tensions, and ambivalences we encounter dealing with narratives that both explore and elide the question of gender. On the one hand, the beautiful woman is a mechanical object. We might bear in mind Alice Jardine’s argument that the other in Lacan’s discourse is always a woman (166). In this case, a woman is always an other. On the other hand, by ungendering the robot, by neutering it, Lem takes woman out of the picture (which she has never really been in anyway). As Catherine MacKinnon points out, "We notice in language as well as in life that the male occupies both the neutral and the male position" (55). Thus when "she" metamorphoses into the essential "it," it itself migrates into the realm of the male, leaving us with no access to a female subject.

The gendering and ungendering of the robot provide us with an understanding of not only the psychic forces undermining the constitution of the subject, but also the social ones. (I should add that it is impossible to separate psyche from society. The distinction I make is merely one of emphasis.) Lacan notes that "The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire" (287). I would like to turn to another strain of French thought—to turn from psychoanalytic to social theory—in order to explore further the implications of the connection between "the privileged signifier" and "the advent of desire." In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault examines how the manipulation of sexual desire enables the deployment of power: "Sexuality must not be described as a stubborn drive, by nature alien and of necessity disobedient to a power which exhausts itself trying to subdue it and often fails to control it entirely. It appears rather as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power." (103). "The Mask" provides the matrix wherein such relations can be discerned.

The programmed femininity of the robot serves as a vehicle whereby the King can manipulate sexual desire and thus keep his subjects in check. The robot has been created to outgender its apparent gender. It is the ultimate womanly woman, occasioning "concealed sighs" in the gentlemen of the court and "envious breathing" in the ladies (182). But the absolute femininity of the robot is not intrinsic, not part of its nature (and I use the term deliberately), but a part of its programming. The robot is programmed to draw upon conventional feminine gestures in order to charm Arrhodes to his doom; Arrhodes is programmed by his culture to respond to such charm. The blush, tantalizing dual sign of innocence and desire, occurs as something external to the robot:

The blush did not belong to me, it spread on my cheeks, claimed my face, pinkened my ear lobes, which I could feel perfectly, yet I was not embarrassed, nor excited, nor did I marvel at this unfamiliar man, only one of many after all, lost among the courtiers—I’ll say more, I had nothing whatever to do with that blush, it came from the same source as the knowledge that had entered me at the threshold of the hall, at my first step upon the mirror floor—the blush seemed part of the court etiquette, of that which was required, like the fan, the crinoline, the topazes and coiffures. (190)

Of course, we all blush involuntarily. But blushing itself is a learned response, a response to feelings of shame, and shame arises only in a social context. Such learned responses, occurring contrary to our will, may abet some design over which we have no power, as the robot realizes: "for this persistent blush had begun to anger me, it constituted an invasion of my freedom, being part—I realized—of that same purpose with which the King had consigned me to my fate" (191). Directed at Arrhodes, that blush will also seal his fate, for it will render his heart captive to his beautiful assassin, as the robot flirtatiously tells him: "Possibly I ought to add, ‘Is there no help for this?’ And you would answer no, not in the face of a beauty whose perfection seems to confirm the existence of the Absolute" (191). Of course, the beauty does "confirm the existence of the Absolute"—the absolute power of the King. By creating a being that will awaken desire in Arrhodes, the King can control not only the destiny of his mechanical object, but also that of his seemingly self-determining subject. In effect, the fatal attraction between the robot and Arrhodes enables the King to achieve his end—the destruction of the rebel. The embrace of a lover may allow power to exert its utmost force.

Playfully, Lem demonstrates that we are all programmed to adhere to the conventions of love. The robot employs a hackneyed gesture to bind Arrhodes to it: "then I closed one hand and with the other let slip from my wrist the little loop of my fan. For it to fall. So he immediately. . . ." (189). The ellipsis is Lem’s, not mine, and the next paragraph begins with the robot and Arrhodes gazing at each other "up close, over the mother-of-pearl handle of the fan" (189). In the intervening blank space, we have supplied the missing information: the fan falling, Arrhodes stooping to retrieve it and then proffering it to the beautiful woman before him, her grateful acceptance. . . . We can no more resist the succession of images than the robot can resist going numb at the sight of Arrhodes.

The very language of love bends itself to the will of the King. The robot’s attempt to warn Arrhodes ends up couched in a lover’s cliché: "I wish by some inconceivable miracle you could forget we ever met" (195). As the robot realizes, the conventionality of the words will ensure a conventional interpretation, masking their admonitory intent and making Arrhodes even more fervent in his passion: "Most unsuitable words, banal in these surroundings, but there was now no way for me to break free of this deadly banality, I realized that as the carriage began to move, he could—after all— interpret what I had said to mean that I feared the emotions that he aroused in me" (195). Resistance is futile when one has no control over the choice of discourse.

The conventional language of love’s fatality is used to express the robot’s inability to resist its programming. The initial meeting between the robot and Arrhodes is described in earth-shattering terms. The robot tells us that "if I hadn’t gone numb inside when our eyes collided, I certainly could have walked away"; that "what passed for a chance meeting of glanceswas foreordained" (189); that "I could feel his face, its porous skin, the unruly, bristling brows, the large curves of his ears, all linking up inside me with my hitherto hidden expectation, as though I had been carrying inside myself the undeveloped negative and he had just now filled it in" (191-92). We are reminded of those initial meetings between Troilus and Criseyde, Petrarch and Laura, Anna Karenina and Vronsky, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. But is it love, or is it programming? Cupid’s arrows give way to computer commands, and Cupid himself becomes a techno/autocrat, consolidating his power by inciting desire. Like a machine that passes the Turing test, the robot lover makes responses that mirror in form those of the human lover. But like the Foucauldian theory with which it has affinities, Lem’s story thereby neuters these desiring subjects, thus bypassing an exploration of the mechanisms of female desire.8

Once the robot has thrown off the mask of femininity, its true form as a mechanism of power can be discerned, and it seemingly accedes to the imperatives of its programming. As Mark Rose points out: "Shedding the mask of humanity ends the romantic agony. Language and consciousness disappear, and the machine becomes a subhuman instrument of pursuit" (162). In recognizing its mechanical nature, the robot apparently recognizes the futility of resistance. Certainly, it bears a striking resemblance at this point to Schwarzenegger’s "Terminator," plowing through whatever gets in its way in its single-minded pursuit of Arrhodes. Even its request to have the physician at the monastery sprinkle its poles with iron, thereby possibly increasing the bounds of its freedom, may be just another piece of the overall program:

No doubt you would like to know what my true intentions were in that final run, and so I will tell you that I tricked the monks, and yet I did not trick them, for I truly desired to regain or rather gain my freedom, indeed I had never possessed it. However, concerning what I intended to do with that freedom, I do not know what confession to make. This uncertainty was nothing new, while sinking the knife into my naked body I also did not know whether I wished to kill or only discover myself, even if one was to have meant the other. That step too had been foreseen, as all subsequent events revealed, and thus the hope of freedom could have been just an illusion, nor even my own illusion, but introduced in me in order that I move with more alacrity, urged on precisely by the application of that perfidious spur. (231)

The robot’s attempt to rebel may in fact just aid the King in carrying out his plan. We might recall Foucault’s argument that "Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" (95). Rebellion may be just another facet in the constellation of power.9

Although "The Mask" holds out little hope that the mechanisms of power can be overthrown, it nevertheless offers the possibility for resistance, albeit a slim one. As the above passage indicates, the robot does not know what it will do with its freedom, and the conclusion of the story does not clear up this uncertainty as to the robot’s intentions. Tracking Arrhodes and his abductors to a remote mountain retreat, the robot finds Arrhodes already dying. Yet it renounces action, fearing that a comforting gesture may hide within it a reflexive murderous sting:

I gazed down into his upturned face, nor daring to touch him nor retreat, for while he lived I could not be certain of myself, though the blood was leaving him with every breath, yet I clearly saw that my duty extended up until the very last, because the King’s sentence must be executed even in the throes of death, therefore I could not take the risk, inasmuch as he was still alive. (238)

Rose notes that in the first part of the story, the robot takes on "the heroic posture of such romantics as Blake and Shelley": "no possible authenticity exists except in rebellion and thus the genuine man must rebel" (162). I would argue that the second part of the story demonstrates that rebellion itself may work against authenticity. Only in renouncing all action does the robot have a chance to escape the imperatives of its programming. The gesture of the rebel is thus a non-gesture, a negation, a type of silence. Interestingly, this may in fact be the most "female" of the robot’s gestures. When one’s voice must speak in a discourse that has negated one, one negates the negation through refusal to join in the game.10

It is not only the story he tells, but the means he uses to tell it, that enables Lem to expose the mechanisms of power. If, as has been persuasively demonstrated in recent theoretical debate, the status quo maintains itself through setting up a system of hierarchical binaries, then erasing the distinction between those binaries may serve to undermine things as they are. The common plight of Arrhodes and the robot, epitomized in the concluding paragraph wherein the two are clasped together in a grotesque version of the marriage bed, blurs the distinction between human and robot identity. The creature’s shifts from feminine to neuter pronouns when thinking of her/itself underscore the shifting boundary between humanness and thingness, as do the metaphors likening human beings to mechanical simulacra and vice-versa. The attendants at the King’s ball appear as "mechanically dancing mannequins" (103), the servant as "a puppet filled with civilities—a live corpse of wax" (196), while "talking statues" (194) populate the royal flower gardens. The robot can concurrently be both "bride and butcher" (238), combining the angelic and the monstrous. By casting the narrative in first person, Lem closes the distance between creator and creation, human writer and ventriloquizing machine. Binaries no longer hold up in the world Lem creates. At least, most of them. Significantly, the binary opposition of male and female is never really broken down, for female becomes absorbed in neuter/male, the gender argument thus derailing before it reaches its destination.

Rose has argued that "The Mask" is "a self-reflexive fable about literature." The robot’s difficulty in escaping its programming mirrors the writer’s own: "Just as a robot is bound by its programming, so a writer is bound by language, genre, and theme, limited by the program of a medium that is the culture’s design, not his own" (157). Clearly, Lem’s critique is itself ensconced in an ideology that we must subject to critique.11 But if Lem cannot resist the ideological narratives that mask their ideology, he has certainly made the attempt. I would like to extend Rose’s argument somewhat, looking at the way in which Lem attempts to resist the determination imposed by the prior texts that make up the palimpsest for his own.

Lem inverts/subverts the ultimate authoritarian text, the story of the Fall—a story that most persuasively equates woman with man’s downfall and knowledge and self-consciousness with evil. Traditionally, Eve has been blamed for precipitating Adam’s fall; she is the first in a long line of monstrous women, her beauty masking the fact that she brings death. But "The Mask" demonstrates that the woman who brings death to man is a construct, yet another instrument that enables power to manifest itself. The robot comes into a world that is already fallen—or perhaps has never been unfallen; its god has already unleashed the forces of death. Whereas the God of Paradise Lost makes the slippery argument that foreknowledge is not predestination, that His creations are free, "The Mask" demonstrates that such freedom is specious. Thus guilt comes not with the taste of the apple of knowledge, but with the refusal to probe the mysteries of the self, as the robot realizes:

I was guiltless, yes, and at the same time full of guilt. Guiltless in all the tracks of time past-perfect merging towards my present, as the little girl, as the adolescent somber and silent through the gray-white winters and in the stifling must of the palaces, and guiltless too in that which had occurred today with the King, for I could not be other than what I was; my guilt—my hideous guilt—lay only in this, that I knew it all so well and considered it a sham, a lie, a bubble, and that wanting to get to the bottom of my mystery, I feared to make the descent and felt a shameful gratitude for the unseen walls that barred my way. (204)

The robot’s "sin" lies only in its avoidance of self-knowledge. Although the attempt to assess the extent of our own programming may lead into an infinite regress, it is only through such an attempt that any degree of freedom might be presupposed.

The robot cannot answer whether it would have embraced or stung Arrhodes, but it is left with the freedom to consider the possibilities. Resisting narrative closure, Lem leaves the reader with that freedom also. Essentially, he resists subscribing to one reigning myth over another. If the robot had indeed administered the fatal sting, we could be left with the despairing notion that no resistance was possible; if it had succored Arrhodes, we could end up with the notion that we can escape our programming, thus playing into the hands of those who lure us with false promises of freedom. Lem maintains his silence on this point.12


1. Recent debate about artificial intelligence has focused upon whether machines whose performances are indistinguishable from those of humans might be considered as minds. For conflicting interpretations of the Turing test, a test designed to make such determinations, see two articles in the January 1990 Scientific American: John R. Searle, "Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?" (26-31); Paul M. Churchland and Patricia Smith Churchland, "Could a Machine Think?" (32-37).

2. I draw the distinction between "female" as referring to the biological entity and "feminine" as referring to a social construct. The distinction seems particularly appropriate in a story that deals with a "female" that is only—and in a literal sense—a construct.

3. In a 1979 interview with Zoran Živković, "The Future Without a Future," Lem discussed the affinities between his two feminine characters:

of that which remains a mystery to me, and there’s quite a good deal of it, I would isolate the problem of the being—a being rationally created, evolving from an empirical method, created so to speak just as a house is built. The being, or rather the heroine Hary [sic] (Rheya), becomes a person and in that sense acquires a dominant position in relation to her creator. This problem obsessed and occupied me for so long that I returned to it last year, writing a story entitled "The Mask." This piece no longer deals with an artificial human in the third person and he is not described externally now; now it is the heroine herself who speaks in the first person, she is conscious of her origin and status, she gradually finds out the truth about herself. Here too we have the classical problem of the freedom and non-freedom of the programmed mind. Why was this problem so interesting that I had to treat it on two occasions? I’m not entirely sure. I’m also not sure why I was interested in precisely a woman, and not in a man or some neutral gender—which is a much more frequent occurrence in my writings. Not only can I not explain this to others but I am unable to explain it to myself. (Pacific Manoa Quarterly 4:258)

As I argue, Lem may not have departed so far from the neutral gender as he imagined. The association of women and insects is not an unusual one for Lem. He tells us that as a boy, having examined pictures in anatomy books, he thought of female genitalia "as something spiderlike" (Microworlds 6).

4. Of course, we must also bear in mind that in conceptualizing woman as other, the elusive Lacan may be drawing our attention to his own difficulty in escaping the signifying system that has perpetuated such determinations. Yet in so doing, he may be abetting further perpetuation.

Dealing with legal, rather than psychoanalytic, standards, Catherine MacKinnon makes a similar point: "Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things" (34). Teresa de Lauretis points out that Foucault elides the question of sex difference, thereby eliding the question of a female subject: "his critical understanding of the technology of sex did not take into account its differential solicitation of male and female subjects, and by ignoring the conflicting investments of men and women in the discourses and practices of sexuality, Foucault’s theory, in fact, excludes, though it does not preclude, the consideration of gender" (3).

5. The rest of Cixous’ sentence puts a gloss on our consideration of the subversiveness of the project with which Lem (Lacan, Foucault) is engaged: "this [woman’s not getting a chance to speak]...[is] all the more serious and unpardonable in that writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures" (879).

6. Lacan’s use of the masculine pronouns in this passage might also provide a gloss on Jardine’s critique of his taking the male as the norm.

7. The robot’s sense of multiple selves may actually paint a truer picture of the human condition than its later self-division. De Lauretis notes that the subject is "not unified but rather multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted" (2).

8. De Lauretis discusses the way in which male-centered theories of power bypass the issue of gender: "Hence the paradox that mars Foucault’s theory, as it does other contemporary, radical but male-centered theories: in order to combat the social technology that produces sexuality and sexual oppression, these theories (and their respective politics) will deny gender" (15). She adumbrates this position in a later passage: "only by denying sexual difference (and gender) as components of subjectivity in real women, and hence by denying the history of women’s political oppression and resistance, as well as the epistemological contribution of feminism to the redefinition of subjectivity and sociality, can the philosophers see in 'women’ the privileged repository of 'the future of mankind"’ (24).

9. Recent thinking in dynamical systems theory leads us to reevaluate the old notion of programming as being completely determined. The concept of indeterminable determinism implies that there can be global programming with a tolerance for localized randomness—that is, decision-making. If we apply this thinking to Lem’s story, we can see that Arrhodes’ death has been determined by the King, but the way in which it is carried out is a local randomness that is allowed for by the global programming structure. In his studies of the workings of power, Foucault anticipates the concept of indeterminable determinism that dynamical systems theory has brought to light. What we see as escaping or subverting our programming may be only a local rebellion allowed for by the global structure. "The Mask" serves as a site for the interconnection between scientific and cultural theory.

10. For a relevant discussion of silence as a form of specifically female defiance, see Susan Gubar’s essay "‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity," The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (NY, 1985).

11. In a discussion of Althusser, De Lauretis points out that he is unable to resist falling into an ideological snare, that put forth by the issue of gender: "Althusser’s theory of ideology is itself caught and blind to its own complicity in the ideology of gender" (6).

12. I would like to thank Tom Weissert and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay for their valuable suggestions during the writing of this essay.


Bowie, Malcolm. "Jacques Lacan." Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida. Ed. John Sturrock. Oxford, 1979.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4:879, 1986.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington, IN, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1978. NY, 1980.

Jardine, Alice. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca, NY, 1985.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan, NY, 1977.

Lem, Stanislaw. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Franz Rottensteiner. 1984. San Diego: Harvest-HBJ, 1986.

—————. "The Mask." Mortal Engines. Trans. Michael Kandel. NY: Seabury, 1977; NY: Bard-Avon, 1982. 181-239 (both editions).

MacKinnon, Catherine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA, 1987.

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA, 1981.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. NY: Signet-NAL, 1965.

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