Fanfiction Fridays: One of the Crazy Ones by starandrea

Whether or not a sufficiently advanced AI can learn to independently think and feel is one of the hallmarks of science fiction, and an existential dilemma that, as far as I’m concerned, has endless avenues of exploration. The show Almost Human missed a lot of opportunities to dig right into the cold, robotic heart of this concept, but in all the places the show itself failed, One of the Crazy Ones by starandrea on AO3 was there to pick up the slack.

Though there are some very conventional elements of relationship fanfiction throughout (hurt/comfort, “forced to share a house,” first time tropes) the writing avoids cliché by thoughtfully revisiting the question of whether or not Dorian actually has free will and is able to consent. Can he, as a robot, actually want or enjoy any of these relationship norms that humans love, or is he simply hard-wired to respond positively to them? Are his opinions real opinions or does his complex and deliberately human-like programming simply obligate him to obey his partner under the guise of independent decision-making?

teaching a robot to love

The “synthetic soul” concept carried over from the show is what makes the distinction between AI emotions and real emotions especially muddy. Dorian is not a robot who has learned to behave like a human by some kind of quirk: he is specifically designed to look, act, speak, and respond exactly as a living human would, from poutiness to functional genitals (something that is also addressed in the show itself, weirdly enough). Part of acting human is, of course, purposely acting as though he isn’t programmed to act human.

If they didn't want cops banging robots they shouldn't have made the robots look like Michael Ealy.

If they didn’t want cops banging robots they shouldn’t have made the robots look like Michael Ealy.

True to the “buddy cop” subgenre of the show, One of the Crazy Ones follows a case that John Kennex and Dorian have been assigned to investigate. Children have been kidnapped from the L Zone, and it turns out that all of them have been raised by one human parent and one android parent. A group morally opposed to “bot lovers” has taken it upon themselves to “rescue” these children and place them in homes where they will not be raised by androids. There are deliberate parallels between the anti-bot extremists in the story and anti-gay extremists in reality, but the nature of this case also serves to bring Dorian’s relationship with free will into narrative focus, something the show never really managed to do.

John is famous on the force for throwing his previous non-humanoid robot partner out of a moving vehicle when it annoyed him, so to put the kidnapping victims at ease, he is instructed by his senior officer to pretend to be associated with an androids rights group. Yet “pretending” to want robots to have rights is morally problematic now that his partner is a DRN android who he has come to perceive as being human.

“I can pretend to relate to Peres and her stupid rights movement,” John says. “As long as you’re pretending too.”

I think I know how it feels to be part of an oppressed minority,” Dorian says dryly. “I’m not gonna have a problem backing you up on that.”

“Pretending to back me up,” John snaps, “It can’t be real. There’s gotta be a line, or I can’t do this.”

Dorian sounds incredulous when he says, “Let me get this straight: you want me to pretend that I want some say in what I do, who I talk to, and where I go? But you don’t want me to actually want it, because that would make you uncomfortable?”

“Yes,” John says stubbornly.

“No,” Dorian tells him. “I can’t do that. You should dump the case, John. If those are your conditions then it’s not going to work.”

He hates that he says it. He hates it even before it’s out of his mouth, but he can’t stop himself. “Then maybe I need a partner who can do it.”

He expects to get a cold maybe you do in response. He even thinks he deserves it. What he gets instead is a laugh, low and quit but unmistakably amused. “Nice try,” Dorian says. “You can’t ride with an MX. You can barely talk to an MX. It’s me or no one, and you know it.”

John doesn’t answer. He also doesn’t get off the highway, and that probably says all it needs to about his response. He doesn’t know how to do this. But he doesn’t know how to stop doing it, either.

“You lose either way,” he says at last. “Either I don’t care enough, which is bad, or I do care and it turns out there’s nothing I can do. And that’s worse.”

… Dorian’s right: he can’t work with an MX because he doesn’t think of them as a person. He can work with Dorian because he does. But the longer he watches a person get treated like a tool, the more messed up his head is going to get, and the more likely he’ll be to do something unforgivably stupid.

I act like a person to mess with your emotions, man.

I act like a person to mess with your emotions, man.

When specific instances are isolated like this, it seems obvious that Dorian does, in fact, have agency and can exercise it, but this is counterbalanced in the rest of the story by reminders that he behaves as though he has free will because he is designed to behave as though he has free will. Before John and Dorian become intimately involved, someone jokingly accuses John of having an android fetish, and Dorian replies blithely “It doesn’t matter; I don’t have any rights. It’s not like you can get in trouble for it.” When Dorian rattles off statistics about physical interaction and John asks him to stop, Dorian says, “I base my interactions with you on the standard you set, John. I touch you because you touch me.”

The conundrum never resolves itself, even when John and Dorian develop a physical relationship. John repeatedly and insistently asks Dorian’s consent, clearly troubled by the fear that Dorian isn’t capable of genuinely giving it. Simultaneously, however, he is convinced on an emotional level that Dorian is a person and should be treated as such. The writing hits the mark on all counts: the relationship is sweet and strangely relatable for being about a robot, the casework is action-packed and moves quickly, the humor is cute and snarky and used liberally, but what really makes the story stand out is the constant, slightly melancholic doubt that Dorian is a real person who can truly be happy in the way John is.

Read it on AO3 and remember to leave kudos.

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