30 November 2016

the uncanny valley.

explained for English majors, by an English major.

Right, you know when you're in a used-book store, one of those wonderful tiny ones where the books are organized by subject matter and nothing else, and the shelves are improbably high and if you tried to take a book down off the top shelf everything would fall down and kill you, probably? And there's a cat, because of course there's a cat, and it's absurdly satisfied with itself? Which it deserves to be, if you lived here you'd be satisfied with yourself too. You wouldn't mind trading lives with that cat for a week or so.

You circle the store in no great hurry. You poke through the section labeled Esoterica, hoping to find some Charles Fort (you've been re-reading From Hell lately) but all you can find are dusty paperbacks about astrology and candle magick and that sort of thing. You almost buy a translation of The Golden Ass, but you're trying lately not to buy books that you can trivially find from the library, so you leave it, even though it's by a translator you admire a great deal. In general living so near a public library rather punctures your enthusiasm for book-buying; what you really covet is that lovely bust of Hippocrates, which isn't for sale. Textbooks you still buy, though, so you dutifully (futilely) examine all the New Testament commentaries in hopes of finding the ones you've been assigned for Advanced Koinē next semester.

You also seriously consider a novel by A.S. Byatt, but your mother loves Byatt and so you reckon she probably owns a copy—you can borrow it over Christmas break. If she doesn't have it you can just re-read Possession; it's been over a year. In Drama you accidentally pick up some anti-Stratfordian literature, and because you're absurdly overdramatic you make an audible noise of disgust when you realize what it is you're holding. This is by far your favorite bit of the store, in the absence of any discernible sci-fi shelves, and in between looking at nice editions of your favorite Shakespeare plays you reiterate to yourself your long-standing intention to finally read The Revenger's Tragedy. 

Another thing that catches your eye over here is a little hardback of the first quarto of Hamlet, the bad quarto of 1603. You take it down and open it at random, and the first line your gaze falls on is Corambis (the bad quarto's equivalent of Polonius) saying "He hath, my lord, won from me a forced grant." The Folio line, you know very well, is "He hath, my lord, won from me my slow leave." It's almost exactly the same thing—scans the same, means the same. But this version is completely nails-on-chalkboard wrong to you, so wrong that you can't even judge on its own merits how good a line it is. It's the wrong line, end of, and it feels even more wrong because it's so close to the line you already know. You've always thought of Shakespeare as a binary state, whereby any given text is either Shakespeare or not-Shakespeare, but this is almost Shakespeare, and it makes you physically uncomfortable.

And, yeah, the uncanny valley is that feeling but with robots.

you thought I was joking about the cat, didn't you?