Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are from Mary Robinette Kowal. “Evil Robot Monkey.” http://maryrobinettekowal.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/evilrobotmonkeyMRK.pdf
Hey There Delilah!, by Zach Lorber ©2015
In Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” the perceived antagonist of Delilah the teacher is a troubling character. From her name to her actions to her profession Delilah the treacherous teacher is an agent of destruction.
Delilah is a name with significant biblical connotations for treachery. She betrays Sampson repeatedly. The biblical Delilah betrays a devout Sampson four times in an attempt to decipher what makes him greater than others of his kind. After 3 lies Sampson finally trusts Delilah about the reason for his great strength. She sells his secret and he proceeds to be horribly tortured because of the removal of what he holds most deer. Samson, only gets deprived of his hair, nothing as substantial as art or the ability to create art. The link to unnatural prostheses connects Sampson’s super-powered, divine hair to Sly’s enhanced knowledge and understanding. Sly proves his worth by being able to understand the perspective and feelings of others. “He pointed to the implant in his head. ‘Maybe Delilah should have one of these. Seems like she needs help thinking’”(3). The tool of perception is clearly lacking in this teacher along with the children that she is responsible for.
Delilah is the one who causes Sly to snap, when she inconsiderately continues to knock on his confines while he is trying to concentrate to create art with his clay. “It wouldn’t be long now, before a handler came to talk to him. Damn. He just wanted to make pottery”(2). This commentary is not advocating the merits of disturbing the cage or living space of any animal; however Sly proves to be beyond an ordinary animal. Sly demonstrates a superior quality in the form of creating art. The creation of art represents a conscious desire to leave a mark on the world and one’s express beyond what is necessary to survive. This inconsiderate adult somehow warrants an escalation of his volatility towards Delilah as opposed to the children. An analogous situation would be someone, possibly you reading, writing or playing intently while numerous children, perhaps cousins knocked at your door asking you if you would play with them. After the fifth instance of this, imagine what a reaction would be to an adult then disturbing you with the same request. Sly may lack the restraint that most humans learn as common courtesy of not releasing an anger outburst against that adult. A human who was raised among humans learns more restraint than Sly towards other antagonizing actions. Sly’s uniqueness makes learning conventions such as restraint very difficult. Delilah should, as a teacher be in a unique position to best understand how to teach social conventions to the young, she is not.
Delilah is an educator of the young, “The student’s teacher flushed as red as a female in heat and called the children away from the window”(1). The responsibility accorded to her is to instruct young minds in knowledge and more importantly at that age etiquette. This aspect of her comportment is most troubling, the fact that she should be a role model for those kids. Instead of respecting the boundaries of an obviously intelligent monkey, Delilah epitomizes impatience and disrespect. The fact that Delilah annoys Sly seems worse than another person doing the same because she should more so understand how unacceptable it should be. It is simply unacceptable for her to be inconsiderate. The particularity about who is named as the reason for punishing Sly is not random or coincidental. Delilah seems to perfectly embody feminine betrayal.
Evil Robot Monkey: Questioning what it means to be Human, by Gabriel Mayer-Heft © 2015
In Kowal’s story “Evil Robot Monkey”, there is a not so subtle literary trick that makes the reader humanize the titular character. The story introduces an unknown character by way of showing us that he is making pottery, a traditionally human endeavour. Then it quickly reveals the fact that he is the ‘Robot Monkey’ from the title; “The clay matted down the hair on the back of his hands making them look almost human” (1). The introductory paragraph goes on to discuss how meticulous the ape is in his work; he pinches the clay, lifts it, and shapes it (1). This forces the reader to question, maybe not consciously, what it means to be human. Just as the reader might be able to accept the humanity of the character, the story makes an abrupt reversal and reminds them that the character is an ape. This is conveyed with a brief exchange wherein he threatens a school teacher that treats him like an animal (1). This juxtaposition between his slow-paced and methodical pottery and the quick sequence showing his animalistic nature is important. It forces the question of defining humanity on the reader.
What is humanity? Does simply being a biological human make you human, and does not being human exclude you from this category? Being “human”, in the context of this story, is not the biological Homo sapiens sapiens that most people would consider as such. The term “human” refers to an intellectual or spiritual state of being. For the purposes of this analysis, “human” will be given the above definition, and “person” will simply mean the subject meets the biological criteria. For example, no one would argue that the woman who wants to take the ape Sly’s pottery spinner (2) isn’t a person, but is she human in the sense that she displays the characteristics that qualify someone to have humanity (i.e. empathy)? Kowal would say no. The most human character in this story is Sly. He wishes nothing more than to create. The creation of a complex work, in my mind, is the ultimate indication of humanity. Even when he knows that he will be punished, rather than lash out, Sly turns to his clay and calms himself through art (3).
The only other truly human character in this story is Sly’s favorite handler, Vern. He is the only character in the story to show Sly respect. After Sly signs something amusing, Vern smiles but covers his mouth (2). To an ape, what we think of as a smile is actually a threat. This is significant because it shows a mutual understanding and respect between the two. The inclusion of Vern in the story is probably Kowal’s way of showing the reader that not all people are inhumane, because that isn’t her message. Vern is in the story to further prove the point that humanity is not isolated to one single group, but to anybody who exhibits its traits. This point may not have been as fully realised if Sly was the only character with humanity.
Sly is able to overcome his animalistic nature, unlike the class trip that treated him badly. It is important to note Kowal’s word choice: “[a child] swung his arms aping Sly crudely.” This is meant to draw a parallels from the people outside Sly’s little world, to the animalistic one. The specific use of the word “aping” causes an immediate reversal of roles for the children and Sly. Suddenly, Sly is the human looking at the animals behind glass. Even though the children “aping” Sly are people, they have not earned the title of “human”. To Kowal, and to me, humanity is not a biological entitlement, but a privilege to be earned.
Untitled, by Erik Chevrier-Langevin © 2015
One of the most interesting and peculiar aspects in Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story “Evil Robot Monkey” is the prevalence of Sly’s obsession with clay. So much so, it is as though the clay is a secondary character in Kowal’s story. The idea of a none-living entity as a secondary character seems odd but it shares a spotlight with Sly in (almost) every scene he is in. We see it in the opening scene when Sly is calmly modeling a vase (1), then he hurls it at the glass window when he is startled (1), then picks it back up and models it before (2) and after it is confiscated at the end of the story (3). It is a flexible medium which takes the shape of many roles that can easily adapt to Sly’s changing moods; it is as though the clay is Sly’s better half, like a couple in a relationship or two close friends.
It might be a bit of a stretch to state that the clay would be Sly’s love interest but if we look at some of the passages in the story it might shine some light on the idea that they do share a very close bond. Prior and following the scene where Sly becomes aggravated and aggressive towards the visiting class of students (1), he is quietly and peacefully sitting at the pottery wheeling making something out of clay (note he is also doing this before he is startled by the class of students). The clay takes the role of Sly’s neutralizer and acts as a shoulder for him to lean on, the clay is a (secondary) character that acts as his tension reliever and therapist (or listener), much like a significant other comforting their lover.
The clay is comparable to that of a loyal friend who has Sly’s back and knows it can be there to pick Sly up when he is having a rough day. Motivational support is another role the clay takes on in the story because it allows him to engage in something and gives him a sense of purpose. Sly is not afraid to be who he is when he’s in the act of pottery making. Sly knows he’ll get his friend back, even though the clay was confiscated for bad behavior. Spending time sculpting vases out of clay is an activity that he not only enjoys but one that helps him to lose himself for a while (as seen at the very beginning and very end of the story). This allows Sly to find inner peace and express himself in a way where he can feel comfortable and does not feel judged.
The Beastly vs the Human in Evil Robot Monkey, by Ryan Lloyd © 2015
In “Evil Robot Monkey,” Mary Robinette Kowal goes to great lengths to narrow the boundary between the humans and the beast in the story. She portrays Sly as a very human animal and the actual humans in the story as having animalistic qualities. However, where Sly has achieved his higher intelligence through biological implants, the humans have not been altered, perhaps implying that the animalistic is innate in humanity.
In the second sentence Kowal writes of Sly that “the clay matted down the hair on the back of his hands making them look almost human” (1). This moment is followed however by him hurling his failed vase at the window “like feces;” monkeys are known to fling their excrement and so this description calls to mind Sly’s nature (1). Within the first paragraph the reader understands that Sly is divided between these two states; as Kowal writes, “he seemed to understand the hellish limbo where Sly lived—too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans” (2). Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this “limbo” are Sly’s murderous impulses. Several times in the story when Sly is talking to Vern he thinks how easy it would be to “reach out and snap his neck” or “ reach out and break him” (2). To quell these impulses Sly puts all of his anger into his creations on the pottery wheel, which is when he is most human.
The actual humans on the other hand are shown to exist in this same limbo as Sly. On one hand they too have impulses which they control to be polite as seen when Vern covers his mouth in order to nore bare his teeth, which constitutes an act of aggression for monkeys: “Vern covered his mouth, masking his smile. The man had manners” (2). But they also tend to follow or take on aspects of the animalistic, for example the children who are seen “aping” Sly (1). The word “aping” denotes mimicking Sly to tease him but also implies the children lowering themselves for a moment to the level of an ape through their imitation. Another interesting example is the female teacher who is described “flushed as red as a female in heat” (1). While this description is filtered through Sly’s perception, Kowal introduces an interesting nuance into the exchange. Sly grabs his genitalia and shows her “ what he would do if she came into his pen” and the teacher is then described as having a “naked” face which turns a “brighter red” (1). Would she be so flustered if Sly’s sexual threats were unrecognizable? It is the biological relatability between Sly’s sexuality and her own which cause her to be so flushed.
The closeness of the animal and the human in this text create a dissonance and almost a sense of horror. The reader understands that Sly’s existence truly is “hell” due to his proximity to his nature and his upgrade. Humanity however is unchanged and so the limbo the humans exist in is natural and, like Sly’s, inescapable.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Evil Robot Monkey.” The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. Comp. George Mann. Vol. 2. Oxford: Solaris, 2008. N. pag. Print.
Untitled, by Vahan Bedros © 2015
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal, is an allegory depicting the hierarchy of human society. Sly, the “evil” robot monkey is a representation of the people in the lower classes of society and how society is controlling the people. It is seen as “evil” because it is a robot who can think, act and react on its own. Because of this fact, it is in need of control so that it may become “good”. As for it being a monkey, it is a representation of human beings since, according to the theories of evolution, we are cousins to monkeys. It is to show that human beings are seen as “evil” by those in higher power such as big corporations, governments, and world religions, hence their will to control and overpower us.
Sly’s reactions are quite common to that of a human being. He is smart and can communicate but yet still chooses to express his feelings through anger, just like human beings. We have a strong capability to understand, and yet, just like chimps and monkeys, we are too impatient to take the time to understand a situation, thus causing anger to speak for us.
The text also depicts Sly to be a prisoner and to be a show to others while he works his pottery. Are human beings not like that? We constantly work possibly in fields that we do not enjoy in order to get a recognition we do not want. Are we not working constantly under supervision of others and punished for our wrong doings? We have cameras and security systems almost everywhere in our cities so that whenever we step a toe out of line, we can be caught and suffer the consequences the Law has prepared for us. Is the conclusion of this story being that humans are monkeys that are being controlled? I truly see it that way.
He also depicts the powerful fear that higher powers such as the government puts on people. He is very strong and could have killed Vern with a swift movement, but Sly’s fear of the outcome and the anger that was filled in him stopped him. Such is the way people live. We are much more powerful than these higher organizations, and yet the fear we have instilled in us stops us from making a move and breaking the chains that bound us to pointless work, just like Sly making vases out of clay.
This great fear keeps him under control just like society is controlled. He accepts his punishment with no question. There is a sense of respect between Sly and Vern, but the respect is not enough to create equality between them forcing Sly to show more respect towards Vern than Vern shows Sly seeing that he is the one at the end of the chain and Vern is the one holding it. Such as sad place society has become. We have become the evil monkey robot. Not so evil if you ask me.
Life of an Artist, by Ashley Watson © 2015
“Evil Robot Monkey” is about the creative limitations artists encounter when trying to do something they love. This short story faces two important issues regarding art and the creative process. It is trying to show readers how art can be seen as a release and purification for anger and also what it feels like to be different in a society that wants everyone to be the same.
Sly is able to release his anger by producing pottery. He is constantly having a fight with rage and without his clay he may act out. Sly uses his artistic process of making clay in order to push his anger out, “Panting, he spun the wheel trying to push his anger into the clay” (3). Kowal shows readers that art can be a relaxing process for artists because they are doing something they love and that they are good at.
Sly is very different from the other chimps. The other chimps do not have an implant in their heads while Sly does. Sly is more in touch with humanity because he does things differently than a regular chimp does, he makes art. Sly is an artist who feels at ease whenever he is making pottery. When Sly displays anger when his art was destroyed, he was seen as dangerous so he was punished. He acted out because he just wanted to be at peace with his art. Kowal shows Sly as a chimp who is very close to humanity. He has abilities to make art, which many humans can’t do.
People are scared to act out and to do something they love without being judged. Kowal shows readers that the other monkeys can be seen as society, while Sly is the artist. He is outnumbered by society just because he is doing something he loves. Kowal uses chimps because they are the animal versions of humans. They have similar lineage as humans and have a lot of the same characteristics as them. She is trying to show readers the relationship between humans and animals and how they are not too far off. Especially in relation to art. It seems that Kowal also made Sly a monkey to show readers how artists are on display and are seen as animals who do out of the ordinary things. I think that the author is trying to show readers how tough being an artist is because of how they release their emotions in their art. The short story shows me that being an artist means you are different than other people and society is waiting for you to do something that is against the norm. Sly is making art in his pen while he is constantly being watched. Not just by kids who decide to disturb him but also by his caregiver. Sly knew that Vern would show up to talk to him right after his violent reaction to the onlookers. Sly is just seen as an animal who should be doing what everyone else does. This short story does a good job at showing readers how much the creative process is looked down on.
“Evil Robot Monkey” is a beautiful, depressing short story. Sly wants to be left alone with his pottery and to do what he loves. However, he is not because something that is different can be seen as dangerous. He had his clay taken from him because it was seen as something causing his anger. When Sly threw his clay, it was associated with something that has caused his anger. Kowal does an excellent job at showing readers what being an artist in a scientific related world feels like.
From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z, by Jordan Rattanavong © 2015
“Evil Robot Monkey” is a short science fiction story of a chimp named Sly, who unlike regular chimpanzees, has a chip implanted into his head. The chip creates a conscious mind capable to understand and communicate with humans through sign language. The first encounter readers have with the protagonist, Sly, is in his pen where he is introduced not as a robot monkey, but as simply as just a name. Kowal introduces Sly as a being who is capable of practicing an art form such as pottery. The first sentence of the story gives the reader a sense that Sly is a person. Without mention of an animal, readers typically assume the protagonist is a human from his actions. When art forms like pottery are presented, an understanding is that it takes time, patience, skill to create a vase. Sly is able to show those characteristics’ when working with pottery. When Kowal introduces Sly as a monkey, she uses personification or a comparison with human characteristics. The interruption by human children causes Sly to display his aggression and anger that an animal would have in the wild. Screaming and throwing his collapsed vase at the window is an action that is much like a monkey throwing its feces in anger. The idea that this monkey who has been modified to understand human communication, from a chip, but still act naturally to his true traits of being an animal are interesting. For Sly to act natural as an animal would mean to have instincts of a chimpanzee, which contrary to belief is not a fun loving animal, but a strong, powerful, and aggressing being. As a reader, the popular phrase, ‘you could put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig’ comes to mind. This quote makes the statement for things that can be made to look and act a certain way, but at the end of the day it is what it is originally intended to be. To see a transformation of an ordinary animal into a being that can express its emotions to humans but still has underlying faults is what makes Sly interesting to the readers. Once the disturbance of children is over with, Sly returns to station to do what he truly wanted to do, make pottery. “Sly dropped a new ball of clay in the center and tried to lose himself.” A humanistic characteristic that Sly shows is the release of emotion and creativity with using pottery as an outlet.
Vern, begins to console Sly with the disruption of the children by telling him that they should have warned Sly of the children. The one point in which the reader is introduced with the idea of Sly’s true feelings of that he is a conscious being, is when he confronts Vern. “‘Sorry’. Vern’s hands danced. ‘we should have warned you that they were coming.’ ‘You should have told them that I was not an animal’” (Kowal). The reader now has an understanding that Sly believes that he is a human and deserves the respect humans expect to receive from each other, unlike the ways animals are sometimes treated by humans.
With the interactions Sly and Vern have, the reader can understand that Sly is no ordinary monkey, but a being with the intelligence to share the act of conversations and take orders. The interactions between Vern and Sly through sign language is the one factor that separates them. The behavioural instincts that primates have, such as grinning to show aggression and eye gazes to show positions is much more present. Sign language has been used in the past to communicate with primates. One of the most popular instances is the story of Koko the gorilla, who was taught to communicate with humans through American Sign Language. Koko’s success of learning to communicate is presented through her trainer, Francine “Penny” Peterson, who claims that Koko is able to understand over 1000 words.
Thinking of human and animal interaction has been a thought for as long as civilization has had the two interactions between one another. With the story making human and animal interaction a reality, it can be seen that Kowal has created Sly as a tool to display that interactions between animals and humans with science fiction two that humans and animals can live side by side and communicate, helping each other with their needs. In the end, Sly is told a command to clean up the mess he made when he had the interaction with the children, tells Vern he understands and goes over back to his station to begin his work once again uninterrupted. Humans and animals learn from one another, whether it be with dogs at home, or tigers at the zoo, the relationship between the two is present.
Robinette Kowal, Mary. “Evil Robot Monkey”. The Solaris Book of New Fiction: Volume 2. 2008.
Fischer, Steven R. (1999). A History of Language. Reaktion Books. 26–28.