Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: The last robot

This week, Futures is delighted to present The last robot by S L Huang. Armed with a degree in maths from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, S L Huang writes mathematically slanted science fiction such as Zero Sum Game. If you’d like to find out more, there are plenty of details at her website or you can follow her on Twitter. Here S L Huang reveals the inspiration behind The last robot — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The last robot

A yellow smiley face, the parent of all emojis. He’s a blank, isn’t he? Two dots and a curve for a mouth.

A yellow smiley face, the parent of all emojis. She’s a blank, isn’t she? Two dots and a curve for a mouth.

No. The second phrasing sounds odd. We do a double-take if it’s called female. Female would be marked in some way — red lips, a pink bow, the addition of hair. Labelling it as male sounds a little sexist, perhaps, but labelling it as female sounds … incorrect.


It isn’t the marking itself that is at fault for this strangeness. Without such conscious differentiation, we wouldn’t be living in a culture of genderless anthropomorphized characters and toys, but of male ones. Cartoon dogs, the yellow minions of Despicable Me, xkcd’s base stick figures — unless told otherwise, we do assign them a gender. A male one.


It’s such a deep-seated cultural tic, our need to sort inanimate beings into binary genders. Of course we’re naturally fascinated by our own reproductive biology, but we take our infatuation many times further than nature itself does. After all, the natural reality of sex and gender is a spiky, multifaceted continuum, with all fauna, including humans, infinite variations on a theme. Evolution unfolds its genetics in a haphazard guesswork of selection over generations, without any preplanned adherence to the categorization we love so much. We are only able to round humanity down to sexual dimorphism by ignoring the percentage who don’t fit our taxonomies … but what happens if we no longer can?

Nature, after all, does not concern herself with our insistence on such rigid categorization.

Or should I say, Nature does not concern themself with such insistence.


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