Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 3 October 2023. Tagged: Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


The term "android", which means "manlike", 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; but something like androids long precede their being called androids. Treating Caliban as android-like may over-egg Prospero's Godgame control over his creatures in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), though it is clear that made entities occur throughout Western literature. But surveying that tradition is beyond the scope of this entry. More narrowly, the first work of fiction to use the term android may have been a book-length verse Utopia by Mark Drinkwater, The United Worlds, a Poem, in Fifty Seven books (1834), in which "androides", machines "in the form of man", do all the heavy labour; but androids (as distinguished from Robots) did not appear in sf until the 1940s. This now 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. Conveniently, "android" almost always denotes an artificial human of organic substance in contemporary sf usage, although it is sometimes applied to manlike machines, just as the term Robot is still occasionally applied to organic entities (for origin of the term, see its first user Karel Čapek). The most important modern exceptions to the conventional rule are to be found in the works of Philip K Dick; more trivially, the two terms can be found used without distinction in some modern sf Cinema.

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; that he called them "robots" did not signify any intention to describe them as mechanical rather than organic. The humanoid female robot created in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) is also so designated without any thought of making a distinction. Terminological exactitudes (for what they are worth) would come later.

The imaginative resistance to the idea of the android, because it seemed a more outrageous breach of divine prerogative than the building of humanoid automata, may have additionally inclined both Čapek and Lang to avoid the term. Several authors from that era toyed with the potentially blasphemous idea of creating human shape indistinguishable from a "real" human complete with "soul"; 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). More or less at the same time, the infinitely reproducible android as a figure of Horror in SF made its first effective appearance in Maurice Renard's Le Singe (1925; trans Florence Crewe-Jones as Blind Circle 1928) with Albert Jean (1892-1975), where a succession of identical creatures commit crimes against society. A similar horror at the smearing of Identity through repetition may underlie the horrificness of the Flesh Guards, identical warrior androids created in Philip George Chadwick's The Death Guard (1939); and the violent response of the android protagonist of Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, when he sees an assembly line of androids identical to him, may seem on the face of it unexceptionable.

In the early sf Pulp magazines androids (however designated) were rare, authors concentrating almost exclusively on mechanical contrivances, The most sophisticated early use of the term can be found in Jack Williamson's The Cometeers (May-August 1936 Astounding; 1950), and 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 which presage a later era when androids were used synecdochally in various discourses designed to expose the oppressive artefacts of patriarchy (see Feminism; also see Imperialism; Race in SF; Women in SF): in Simak's tale they seek emancipation from Slavery, assisted in their cause by the discovery that, in common with all living creatures, they have Alien "commensals" – sf substitutes for souls. Interestingly, sf writers have from the beginning almost invariably taken 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 twentieth-century 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); the sacrificial android in Marge Piercy's He, She and It (1991; vt Body of Glass 1992) reinvokes the medieval Golem. What may seem to constitute a rebuttal of this long slow wave of emancipatory discourse could be the treatment of robots-in-android shape as murderous in Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973); but the androids who seek emancipation in the definitive Television reboot/sequel Westworld (2016-2022) do gain something like freedom and consciousness, directly following Julian Jaynes's instruction kit for the creation of consciousness through the breakdown of the bicameral mind: as the Godgame magus responsible for this transformation says, the bicameral mind theory does not work well for humans, but for AIs lifting themselves by their own bootstraps to self-consciousness it is an ideal tool. Something like this process of self-enablement, though usually very much less sophisticatedly, shapes the "climb" of various aspirational AIs towards a threatening autonomy in several recent films, though perhaps the most famous film sequence to feature evolué androids, Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) directed by Denis Villeneuve, pays vanishingly little attention to the creation of its qualifiedly self-conscious replicants, any more than did Philip K Dick, from whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) these films were made.

Earlier stories hinging on the confusion of real and ersatz include "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, The Deep (1975) by John Crowley, where a Mysterious Stranger android disrupts a tightly-wound world, and Replica (1987) by Richard Bowker. The confusion between real and synthetic is of course central to Dick's work, though he is not much interested in how conscious creatures may have been manufactured, and he 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? (see above) 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 Taboos have lost their old panicked stringency (see Sex); early examples include The Silver Metal Lover (1982) by Tanith Lee and The Hormone Jungle (1988) by Robert Reed; later examples are exceedingly numerous, though the 2016 version of Westworld (see above) elaborately guide-books most of the available permutations of sex between or among androids, with or without human partners.

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/JC]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies