The Uncanny – Or, My Conversations With An Artificial Intelligence

Yes, I know, I'm terrible at drawing Sigmund Freud.

Yes, I know, I’m terrible at drawing Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud had some very strange ideas about a lot of things, but he had at least one idea that could be useful to both sci-fi and horror writers. I am, of course, talking about Freud’s concept of “The Uncanny“.

In case you’ve never heard of it before, Wikipedia defines it as “an instance where something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange“, which sounds about right.

I first discovered this idea during an English literature module at university a few years ago and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until a few weeks ago when someone on DeviantART mentioned a website featuring a program called “Cleverbot EVIE“.

This is a website where you can have a conversation with an artificial intelligence called “EVIE”. The site also features surprisingly realistic animated CG graphics too and EVIE can also show a range of semi-realistic expressions when answering questions.

Although her artificial intelligence isn’t perfect and she can say some hilariously random things, my first reaction to this site was one of confusion and unease.

After all, I was having a conversation with an artificial intelligence – something which I assumed was the stuff of science fiction rather than modern life.

Not only that, her response to one of my questions was quite chilling. See for yourself…

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Look at the bottom of the screenshot. If you're a "Battlestar Galactica" fan, you're probably freaking out right about now....

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] Look at the bottom of the screenshot. If you’re a “Battlestar Galactica” fan, you’re probably freaking out right about now….

Anyway, this site is the perfect example of Freud’s idea of “The Uncanny”. After all, you’re talking to a person who isn’t actually a person. You’re looking at someone who almost looks real, but not quite. You’re looking at someone who winks and smiles in an almost imperceptibly unrealistic way.

So, why is any of this useful to sci-fi and horror writers? Well, these are two genres where you have to blend realistic things and unrealistic things together in a way that keeps your audience interested.

For example, many of the scariest horror stories are set within the modern world but they also feature all sorts of mysteriously menacing supernatural and paranormal things too.

Likewise, although “serious” science fiction stories might include things like faster-than-light travel, large spaceships etc… the technology in these stories has to seem like it’s a realistic future evolution of modern technology.

So, given that both types of stories rely on blending realistic and unrealistic things they’re absolutely perfect for adding uncanny stuff to. And, of course, the uncanny can be used to provoke different reactions in each genre.

In horror stories, the uncanny (eg: seeing a very slightly different face in the mirror) adds an extra level of fear to the story by subtly suggesting that reality isn’t as reliable as the reader thinks it is.

But, in sci-fi stories, adding uncanny stuff (like humanoid robots) can be a way to show your readers that they are looking at something far removed from their “ordinary” lives.

Not only that, most new technology looks at least slightly strange to people who haven’t seen it before, so making the technology in your story look “uncanny” can also be a good way of making it seem even more “futuristic” too.

Of course, the uncanny works best when it’s subtle. It is at it’s best when your readers know that they’re looking at something strange, but they can’t instantly work out exactly why it’s so strange.

So, make sure that you keep at least most of the uncanny stuff in your story at least slightly subtle.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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