Androids

Tagged: Theme

The term "android", which means "manlike", was not commonly used in sf until the 1940s. The first modern use seems to have been in Jack Williamson's The Cometeers (May-August 1936 Astounding; 1950). The word was initially used of automata, and the form "androides" first appeared in English in 1727 in reference to supposed attempts by the alchemist Albertus Magnus (circa 1200-1280) to create an artificial man. In contemporary usage "android" usually denotes an artificial human of organic substance, although it is sometimes applied to manlike machines, just as the term Robot is still occasionally applied (as by its originator Karel Čapek) to organic entities. The conventional distinction was first popularized by Edmond Hamilton in his Captain Future series, where Captain Future's sidekicks were a robot, an android and a Brain in a Box. The most important modern exceptions to the conventional rule are to be found in the works of Philip K Dick.

The notion of artificial humans is an old one, embracing the Golem of Jewish mythology as well as alchemical homunculi. Until the nineteenth century, though, it was widely believed that organic compounds could not be synthesized, and that humanoid creatures of flesh and blood would therefore have to be created either by magical means or, as in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), by the gruesome process of assembly. Even after the discovery that organic molecules could be synthesized, some time passed before, in R.U.R. (1920; trans 1923), Čapek imagined androids "grown" in vats as mass-produced slaves; these "robots" were made so artfully as to acquire souls, and eventually conquered their makers.

There was some imaginative resistance to the idea of the android because it seemed a more outrageous breach of divine prerogative than the building of humanoid automata. Several authors toyed with the idea but did not carry it through: the androids in The Uncreated Man (1912) by Austin Fryers and in The Chemical Baby (1924) by J Storer Clouston prove to be hoaxes. Edgar Rice Burroughs played a similar trick in The Monster Men (November 1913 All-Story as "A Man Without A Soul"; 1929), but did include some authentic artificial men as well, as he did also in Synthetic Men of Mars (1940).

In the early sf Pulp magazines androids were rare, authors concentrating almost exclusively on mechanical contrivances, though the charismatic military commander who carries on a doomed war in C L Moore's Judgment Night (August-September 1943 Astounding; 1965) is an android. It was not until after World War Two that Clifford D Simak wrote the influential Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953), the first of many stories in which androids seek emancipation from Slavery; here they are assisted in their cause by the discovery that, in common with all living creatures, they have Alien "commensals" – sf substitutes for souls. Sf writers almost invariably take the side of the androids against their human masters, sometimes eloquently: the emancipation of the biologically engineered Underpeople is a key theme in Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series; a Millennarian android religion is memorably featured in Robert Silverberg's Tower of Glass (1970); and androids whose personalities are based on literary models are effectively featured in Port Eternity (1982) by C J Cherryh. Cherryh's Cyteen (1988) is one of the few novels to attempt to present a society into which androids are fully integrated. Other pleas for emancipation are featured in "Down Among the Dead Men" (June 1954 Galaxy) by William Tenn, Slavers of Space (1960 dos; rev as Into the Slave Nebula 1968) by John Brunner and Birthright (1975) by Kathleen Sky, but the liberated androids in Charles L Grant's The Shadow of Alpha (1976) and its sequels are treated far more ambivalently. An android is used as an innocent observer of human follies in Charles Platt's comedy Less than Human (1986), and to more sharply satirical effect in Stephen Fine's Molly Dear: The Autobiography of an Android, or How I Came to my Senses, Was Repaired, Escaped my Master, and Was Educated in the Ways of the World (1988).

Androids also feature, inevitably, in stories which hinge on the confusion of real and ersatz, including "Made in U.S.A." (April 1953 Galaxy) by J T McIntosh, "Synth" (in New Writings in SF 9, anth 1966, ed John Carnell) by Keith Roberts, the murder mystery "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF) by Alfred Bester, and Replica (1987) by Richard Bowker. The confusion between real and synthetic is central to the work of Philip K Dick, who tends to use the terms "android" and "robot" interchangeably; he discusses the importance this theme had for him in his essays "The Android and the Human" (December 1972 SF Commentary) and "Man, Android and Machine" (in Science Fiction at Large, anth 1976, ed Peter Nicholls), both of which are reprinted in The Dark-Haired Girl (coll 1988). His most notable novels dealing with the subject are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972).

Stories featuring androids designed specifically for use at least in part as sexual partners have become commonplace as editorial taboos have relaxed; examples include The Silver Metal Lover (1982) by Tanith Lee and The Hormone Jungle (1988) by Robert Reed.

Science Fiction Thinking Machines (anth 1954) edited by Groff Conklin has a brief section featuring android stories; The Pseudo-People (anth 1965; vt Almost Human: Androids in Science Fiction) edited by William F Nolan mostly consists of stories of robots capable of imitating men. [BS]

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