The Wonderful Life of Droids

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Robots, mechs, synthetics, machines, droids -- they fill sci-fi universes as tools, colleagues, and even the primary antagonists. In the Star Wars Original Trilogy, droids are ancillary to the galactic conflict, used by both rebels and imperials, as well as at moisture farms and urban centers. They've penetrated all realms of life. 

Droids oddly exude personality and emotion. They may not all have the words to express them, but they find ways to show them nonetheless. Who can forget the lowly mouse droid cowering in fear upon hearing the mighty Chewbacca's roar? Artoo beeps with ever faithful optimism, while Threepio counters with apocalyptic pessimism. Droids in Jabba's palace wail upon being pulled apart, burnt, and tortured. Interestingly, droids develop compassionate relationships with one another. Threepio offers to give some of his circuits to help with Artoo’s repairs -- a droid's version of organ donation.

Droids definitely have a lower class status, if they possess a class or rights at all. They are bought and sold, have masters, such as Master Luke or Master Antilles, and recognize other authority figures (Princess Leia throughout the films). Restraining bolts are installed on them, their memory can be freely wiped, and stealing a droid is an affront to the droid’s owner; it’s not kidnapping. If one is disliked, it can be scrapped or deactivated.

The lack of autonomy droids possess is not just a political reality. It is a result of their engineering. Threepio references ethical programming he refuses to violate when Han Solo demands he deceive ewoks. At another time, Threepio notes that organics need not worry about upsetting droids. Why not? Perhaps there is something like Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics going on in the Star Wars universe. 

Droids like Threeprio are aware of their lowly circumstances, and adopt “existential attitudes.” Beyond general fear of death, Threepio constantly worries about deactivation or being scrapped for parts. We see the poor end of droids aboard a Jawa sandcrawler or in Jabba’s Palace that substantiates Threepio's fears. As an audience, it doesn’t seem to bother us. We don’t care about the droids as we do toys from Toy Story 3 when they almost meet a grizzly demise.

With the exception of bounty hunter IG-88, most fill domestic or support roles, than possessing military or administrative capacities. All seem geared to complete a very specific task, instead of handling a wide variety of functions or dealing in generalities. Droids never have authority over organics, but they may have a pecking order amongst themselves. In Jabba's palace, a droid decides the fate of Artoo and Threepio, and considers for what functions they might be purposed. Nonetheless, where they possess authority, it is derived from and never over organics.

But being subject to organics does not mean droids will not disobey or outwit them, even those who might be their owners. Threepio lies to Stormtroopers aboard the Death Star. Of most interest is when Artoo deceives Threepio and his new owner Luke to remove his restraining bolt so he can go in pursuit of Obi-wan Kenobi. This makes us wonder as to the reasoning of droids -- how and when do they recognize a new owner as its master? Why was Leia's prerogative viewed by Artoo as more important than obeying Luke? That there is ambiguity here explains why Owen would request that purchased droids have their memories wiped.

Where does droid and organic culture intersect? Organics seem to stress some separations -- such as when droids aren't allowed in the Mos Eisley cantina. But there is some overlap, such as when Artoo plays a chess-like game with Chewie aboard the Millenium Falcon.

Interestingly, one thing differentiating the Rebellion from the Empire is relationships that develop between droids and organics. Chewie grows to care for Threepio and Luke for Artoo, who won't swap out the astromech for another since they'd been through a lot together. Artoo waits out near the front gate of Echo base to wait for Master Luke. Droids for some rebels are more than tools.

The personnel within the empire are presented as competitive, and no affection is shown towards the likes of a droid. Perhaps this is another instantiation of the Empire's human supremacy, showing little tolerance for aliens and droids alike.

In A New Vision, we'll explore and further develop the life of droids. While Artoo and Threepio won't grace our pages, we'll introduce a healthy assortment of droids in Herald of Fury with novel personalities and predicaments. You've already met IG-68 and Ax; in a couple weeks you'll encounter Echo. All will build upon the nuanced subculture of droids laid out in the Original Trilogy.

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