Voices in the Uncanny Valley

Marcello Sachs '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

The Uncanny Valley is not just a visual realm; uncanny voices have sounded in television, literature, and film. From the TV show Max Headroom, to Gibson's novel Neuromancer, to Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Oddysey, electronic voices provide a chilling presence.

Max Headroom

The entity of Max Headroom (from the show with the same name) is derived from the mind of the human Edison Carter, and as a result has a human-like personality. His image on the tv show, though supposedly computer-generated, is actually produced by filming the actor playing Edison Cartor in heavy make-up. Thus, although the appearance of actual computer generated actors today is often almost-human and thus in the valley of the uncanny (such as the virtual actress in Heavy Rain ), the image of Max Headroom is just human enough to climb out of the valley and into the far right side of the Uncanny Valley chart, where humans respond empathetically. Max's placement on the right side of the Valley corresponds with his role in the TV series; as a comic relief / sidekick, it is important that the audience feels comfortable around him. But then again, Max Headroom is not a typical TV series; I will rephrase: it is important that the audience feels comfortable around him most of the time. Corresponding to the TV series' pursuit to present a chilling future, Max Headroom sometimes delves from the familiar into the eerie. We've established that his image is human enough to rise out of the Uncanny Valley; thus it is his almost-human speech patterns that sometimes pull him back down.

The stutter that trademarks Max's voice is sometimes comical and endearing. After all, a human with a stutter is often more cute or pathetic than unsettling and disgusting. However, sometimes Max's stuttering resembles less someone overcoming a speech disability and more a crazed person with a neurological disorder. Repetition is often the mark of insanity; in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, the onset of Jack's madness is signaled when he types "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" thousands of times on stacks of paper and all over the walls.


Hal, an advanced artificial intelligence in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Oddysey does not stutter when it talks. Instead, its words flow out smoothly, carefully, lifelessly. Hal is just as mentally capable as a human, if not more. Hal also has emotions: facing impending death, Hal displays great fear, fervently trying to persuade the humans to not unplug him. Intelligent and emotional, Hal is almost human. However, in addition to his flat, all-too-calm voice, Hal is socio-pathic, attempting to kill on-board astronauts because they are interfering with a mission. Hal, similar to Max, is almost human because he resembles a human with a neurological disorder. While Max's voice only sometimes delves into the Uncanny Valley, Hal's voice is always eerie; Hal is always a discomforting force in the film.

Dixie, a cyborg in William Gibson's Neuromancer has a much more human personality than either Max Headroom or Hal. Dixie is a human brain, replete with emotional experience and a normal, healthy psyche, transferred onto an electronic template. Although the reader cannot hear Dixie's voice, the reader can judge whether or not Dixie's voice brings him into the Uncanny Valley by the emotional responses of Case, who converses regularly with Dixie. Case responds positively to Dixie, interspersing conversation about their mission with informal, more personal talk. However, there is one aspect of Dixie's voice that unsettles Case: his laugh . "When the construct laughed, it came through as something else, not laughter, but a stab of cold down Case's spine." Dixie is very human; Dixie is so human that Case feels the same kind of empathy towards him as he would another human. However, during the moments when Dixie laughs, Case is immediately reminded of his electronic existence; in those moments, Dixie is as chilling as a human corpse.

  • Valley of the Uncanny
  • Personality in Blade Runner
  • Voices in The Uncanny Valley

  • Course Website cyborg Body & Self Literature

    Last modified 31 December 2006