Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


The word "robot" first appeared in Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (1920; trans 1923), and is derived from the Czech robota (statute labour), making it clear that Čapek intended his drama to comment on Slavery (see Imperialism), class, race (see Race in SF), and social revolution. What he called robots are artificial human beings of organic origin, and the coining (as suggested by Josef Čapek) soon became applied in general use to servitor Machines. whether or not their appearance was humanoid. It was certainly not Čapek's intention to be over-precise about the exact physical nature of his "robots", who are in fact, as usage has evolved, more accurately described as Androids, the main distinction being an assumption that the latter are artificially created organic humanoids. Real-life assembly-line robots, increasingly numerous over the past half century, are adapted to specific functions, and might better be thought of as Automata; in sf the term usually refers to manufactured mobile machines, most often in more-or-less human form

In Homer's Iliad, the half-god Hephaestus may be the first fabricator of imagined robot-like creations, mobile tripodal creatures capable of attending the gods (Book 18); automated guards, some canine, some simply gigantic, can be found elsewhere in Greek literature; and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) describes Hephaestus's tripods as prototypes of a potential working class, which could replace slaves. It has in recent years become a point of interest in Feminist studies that both Greek and Hebrew myths of origin of the female human are not only both composed from a male viewpoint, but in both main instances – Eve, in the Bible, and Pandora in the Works of Hesiod (floruit 700 BCE) – they are created creatures: they are made by men, and ever since, in the literatures of the West, have often been treated as dangerously and uncannily similar to males, but (like Čapek's robots) fatal when unleashed from patriarchal control; female Androids are of course particularly dangerous, given their Uncanny Valley resemblance to real (ie male) humans Mention should also made in this context of the various Jewish legends of the Golem (which see).

Actual machines which mimic human form date back only to the eighteenth century. The first real Automata [see that entry for examples] were showpieces: clockwork dummies, which occasionally purported to play Chess, or puppets. Their counterparts in fiction seem either to have been hoaxes or manifestations of diabolism. It is only in the early years of the twentieth century that agency begins to be imported into what it is now more appropriate to call robots, though not necessarily with serious intent. William Wallace Cook's A Round Trip to the Year 2000 (July-November 1903 Argosy; 1903), which features robotic "mugwumps", and the anonymous skit Mechanical Jane (1903) are both comedies, as is J Storer Clouston's Button Brains (1933), a novel in which a robot is continually mistaken for its human model and which introduced most of the mechanical-malfunction jokes that remain the staple diet of stage and television plays featuring robots; more of these below.

Early twentieth-century works begin to import agency into automata, though not necessarily with serious intent. William Wallace Cook's A Round Trip to the Year 2000 (July-November 1903 Argosy; 1903), which features robotic "mugwumps", and the anonymous skit Mechanical Jane (1903) are both comedies, as is J Storer Clouston's Button Brains (1933), a novel in which a robot is continually mistaken for its human model and which introduced most of the mechanical-malfunction jokes that remain the staple diet of stage and television plays featuring robots; more of these below.

Early Pulp-magazine stories about robots are generally ambivalent. David H Keller's "The Psychophonic Nurse" (November 1928 Amazing) is a cooperative servant, but no substitute for a mother's love. Abner J Gelula's "Automaton" (November 1931 Amazing) has lecherous designs on its creator's daughter and has to be destroyed. Harl Vincent's "Rex" (June 1934 Astounding) takes over the world and is about to remake Man in the image of the robot when his regime is overthrown. But the balance soon swung in favour of sympathy. The machines in Eando Binder's "The Robot Aliens" (February 1935 Wonder Stories) come in peace but are misunderstood and abused by hostile humans. Saccharine sentimentality is also in the ascendant in "Helen O'Loy" (December 1938 Astounding) by Lester del Rey, in which a man marries the ideal mechanical woman; in "Robots Return" (September 1938 Astounding) by Robert Moore Williams, in which spacefaring robots discover that they were created by humans and accept the disappointment nobly; in "Rust" (October 1939 Astounding) by Joseph E Kelleam, which describes the tragic decline into extinction of mechanical life on Earth; in the anti-Frankensteinian parable "'I, Robot'" (January 1939 Amazing) by Eando Binder – this launched the influential Adam Link sequence, many collected as Adam Link – Robot (January 1939-April 1942 Amazing; fixup 1965); and in "True Confession" (February 1940 Thrilling Wonder) by F Orlin Tremaine and "Almost Human" (March 1941 Super Science Stories) by Ray Cummings, both of which feature altruistic acts of robotic self-sacrifice. Isaac Asimov claims to have invented (with John W Campbell Jr's help) his famous Laws of Robotics in response to a technophobic "Frankenstein Complex" – a term he introduced in "Little Lost Robot" (March 1947 Astounding) – but there is little evidence of one in the robot stories published around the time of "Strange Playfellow" (September 1940 Super Science Stories; vt "Robbie" in I, Robot, coll 1950). Robots are given higher status than mere humans in "Farewell to the Master" (October 1940 Astounding) by Harry Bates and "Jay Score" (May 1941 Astounding) by Eric Frank Russell, the first of a series later published as Men, Martians and Machines Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955).

The system of ethics with which Asimov's Positronic Robots were hardwired was enshrined in the three famous Laws of Robotics (devised in discussions with John W Campbell Jr, whom Asimov insisted was their co-creator). The laws emerged from "Reason" (April 1941 Astounding); "Liar!" (May 1941 Astounding) became the first of many Asimov stories whose plots involve the explication of odd robot behaviour as an unexpected consequence of them. In "Liar!" (as in many others) the logical unravelling is accomplished by the "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin. The early stories in the series – collected in I, Robot (coll of linked stories 1950) – culminated in "Evidence" (September 1946 Astounding), in which a robot politician can get elected only by convincing voters that he is human, but does the job far better than the man he replaces. In C L Moore's "No Woman Born" (December 1944 Astounding) a dancer whose mind is resurrected in a robot body quickly concludes that the robot condition is preferable to the human. The robot servants who survive mankind in Clifford D Simak's City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) are the perfect gentlemen's gentlemen rather than mere slaves. One cautionary note was sounded by Anthony Boucher, whose stories "Q.U.R." (March 1943 Astounding) and "Robinc" (September 1943 Astounding), both as by H H Holmes, champion "usuform robots" against anthropomorphous ones; the stated reasons are utilitarian, but Boucher's religious faith – he was a devout Catholic – may have influenced his opinion. The most notable comic robot in pulp sf – outside the works of the prolific Ron Goulart, which are infested by logically malfunctioning robots of every conceivable variety, not exclusively with comic intent – is the narcissistic machine Joe introduced in "The Proud Robot" (October 1943 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner as Lewis Padgett, and reappearing in other episodes of Kuttner/Padgett's Robots Have No Tails (stories January 1943-April 1948 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1952).

After 1945, when the atom bomb provoked a new suspicion of technology, attitudes to robots in sf became more ambivalent again. In 1947 Asimov published his first sinister-robot story, "Little Lost Robot" (March 1947 Astounding Science-Fiction), and Jack Williamson produced the classic "With Folded Hands ..." (July 1947 Astounding), in which robot "humanoids" charged with the Prime Directive "to serve man, to obey, and to guard men from harm" take their mission too literally, and set out to ensure that no one endangers their own well being and that everyone is happy, even if that requires permanent tranquillization or prefrontal lobotomy. Many writers did not relinquish their loyalty to machines; Asimov and Simak remained steadfastly pro-robot, and Williamson relented somewhat in his sequel to "With Folded Hands ...", The Humanoids (March-May 1948 Astounding as "... And Searching Mind"; rev 1949) – although the ending of the novel may have been suggested by John W Campbell Jr rather than being a spontaneous expression of Williamson's own technophilic tendencies – but most robot stories of the 1950s involve some kind of confrontation and conflict. Robots kill or attempt to kill humans in "Lost Memory" (May 1952 Galaxy) by Peter Phillips, "Second Variety" (May 1953 Space Science Fiction) by Philip K Dick, "Short in the Chest" (July 1954 Fantastic Universe) by Idris Seabright (Margaret St Clair), "First to Serve" (May 1954 Astounding) by Algis Budrys, The Naked Sun (1956) by Asimov and "Mark XI" (May 1957 Saturn; vt "Mark Elf" in You Will Never Be the Same, coll 1963) by Cordwainer Smith. A UFO-borne robot Invasion of Earth is central to Lionel Fanthorpe's comically inept March of the Robots (1961) as by Leo Brett. In Comics, Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future has to deal with conquering hordes of "Elektrobots" and subsequently "Selektrobots" commanded by his nemesis the Mekon.

The mistaken-identity motif takes on sinister or unfortunate associations in Asimov's "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (April 1951 Amazing), Dick's "Impostor" (June 1953 Astounding), Walter M Miller's "The Darfsteller" (January 1955 Astounding) and Robert Bloch's "Comfort Me, My Robot" (January 1955 Imagination). Robot courtroom dramas include Simak's "How-2" (November 1954 Galaxy), Asimov's "Galley Slave" (December 1957 Galaxy) and del Rey's "Robots Should Be Seen" (January 1958 Venture). Man-robot boxing matches are featured in "Title Fight" (December 1956 Fantastic Universe) by William Campbell Gault, "Steel" (May 1956 F&SF) by Richard Matheson and "The Champ" (1958 Science Fantasy #29) by Robert Presslie. The robot is an instrument of judgement in "Two-Handed Engine" (August 1955 F&SF) by Kuttner and C L Moore. Black comedies involving robots include several stories by Robert Sheckley, notably "Watchbird" (February 1953 Galaxy), "The Battle" (September 1954 If) and "A Ticket to Tranai" (October 1955 Galaxy), although Sheckley's classic story in this vein – extracting grim hilarity from a robot's inflexible literal-mindedness – was the later "The Cruel Equations" (1971 BOAC). One story which deviates markedly from the pattern is Boucher's Catholic fantasy "The Quest for St Aquin" (in New Tales of Space and Time, anth 1951, ed Raymond J Healy), in which a perfectly logical robot emulates Thomas Aquinas and deduces the reality of God; but in the main robot stories of the 1950s reflected profound anxieties concerning the relationship between Man and machine. Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), which deals in some depth with its hero's anti-machine prejudices and his mechanized environment, brings this anxiety clearly into focus.

As post-Hiroshima anxiety began to ebb away in the late 1950s, a more relaxed attitude to the robot became evident, humour and gentle irony coming to the fore in such stories as those in Harry Harrison's War with the Robots (1958-1962 var mags; coll 1962), Brian W Aldiss's "But Who Can Replace a Man?" (June 1958 Infinity Science Fiction; vt "Who Can Replace a Man?" in The Canopy of Time, coll 1959), Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962), Poul Anderson's "The Critique of Impure Reason" (November 1962 If), and Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) (see Laws of Robotics). The old sentimentality returned to the robot story in full force in Simak's "All the Traps of Earth" (March 1960 F&SF), and soon reached new depths of sickliness in Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric!" (August 1969 McCall's). The rehabilitation of the robot was completed by Barrington J Bayley's study in robot existentialism, The Soul of the Robot (1974; rev 1976), and its sequel, The Rod of Light (1985), and by Asimov's "– That Thou Art Mindful of Him!" (May 1974 F&SF) and "The Bicentennial Man" (in Stellar #2, anth 1976, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey), which took the robot's philosophical self-analysis to its logical conclusion, ending with the identification of the robot as a thoroughly "human" being. Asimov later set out to integrate his robot stories into the Future History of his Foundation series in such novels as The Robots of Dawn (1983) and Robots and Empire (1985); he also wrote a series of juvenile robot stories in collaboration with his wife Janet Asimov, begun with Norby the Mixed-Up Robot (1983), and lent his name to a series of Shared-World novels set in Isaac Asimov's Robot City, begun with Odyssey (1987) by Michael P Kube-McDowell. Janet Asimov carried the family tradition forward in Mind Transfer (1988), which explores the possibilities of robot Sex alongside philosophical discussions of robotic "humanness". Other exercises in robot existentialism are featured in Sheila MacLeod's Xanthe and the Robots (1977) and Walter Tevis's angst-ridden Mockingbird (1980).

Robot philosophy of a less earnest but cleverer kind is extensively featured in Stanisław Lem's robotic fables, collected in The Cyberiad (coll 1965; trans 1974) and Mortal Engines (coll trans 1977). Robot Religion and Mythology are featured in Robert F Young's "Robot Son" (September 1959 Fantastic Universe), Roger Zelazny's "For a Breath I Tarry" (March 1966 New Worlds), Simak's A Choice of Gods (1972) and Gordon Eklund's "The Shrine of Sebastian" (in Chains of the Sea, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg). The integration of the robot into human religious culture is celebrated in Robert Silverberg's "Good News from the Vatican" (in Universe 1, anth 1971, ed Terry Carr), about the election of the first robot pope. Some humans, at least, are prepared to fight for the freedom of ex-colonial robots in James P Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker (1983). The awkward question of whether one would let one's daughter marry a robot is squarely addressed in Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover (1982), and the problems of an orphaned robot trying to get by in a puzzling and hostile world are hilariously (though ultimately tragically) displayed in Roderick (1980) and Roderick at Random (1983) by John T Sladek. The homicidal robot, although an endangered species, has not quite become extinct: a plausible belief that the titular robot is both vengeful and murderous drives the plot of Roger Zelazny's Home Is the Hangman (November 1975 Analog; 1990 chap dos), and a robot psychopath whose "asimov circuits" have failed is the Antihero of Sladek's Tik-Tok (1983).

The killer-robot, however, made its most successful comeback during the 1980s and 1990s in movies rather than books, an influential example being The Terminator (1984) and its numerous sequels and spinoffs (see Cinema for further instances). Significant twentieth century cinematic instances of robots being used as more than a simple killer include Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 and 2008), who stands in judgment on Homo sapiens; Robbie in Forbidden Planet (1956), who embodies Asimov's three Laws of Robotics; and the entities in a Stanley Kubrick film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), the latter conceived by Kubrick and mostly executed in the previous century. The gloom-ridden "paranoid android" Marvin (actually a robot), with his "brain the size of a planet", is a major comic character in the various versions of Douglas Adams's Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy saga, and for a time attained cult-hero status. Other well-loved television robots include the older example in Lost in Space whose catchphrase was "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!", the comically androidal Kryten in Red Dwarf and the thoroughly Antiheroic Bender in Futurama; perhaps less universally popular is the laser-toting robot Dog K-9 introduced into Doctor Who (1963-current) in the Fourth Doctor serial The Invisible Enemy (1-22 October 1977), retained as a companion, and reappearing in later storylines including its own spinoff show K-9 (2009-2010). But the paranoid vision of robots warring against humanity never quite dies out, as witness Daniel H Wilson's jocular doomsaying in How to Survive a Robot Uprising (2005) and more serious treatment of the old theme in his Robopocalypse sequence comprising Robopocalypse (2011) and Robogenesis (2014).

The writer whose work confirms the identification of Man and robot most strongly is Philip K Dick, who usually preferred the term "android". His most notable stories using humanoid machines to address the question of what the word "human" can or should mean are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), "The Electric Ant" (October 1969 F&SF) and We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972). "Someday," he said in his essay "The Android and the Human" (December 1972 SF Commentary), "a human being may shoot a robot which has come out of a General Electrics factory, and to his surprise see it weep and bleed. And the dying robot may shoot back and, to its surprise, see a wisp of gray smoke arise from the electric pump that it supposed was the human's beating heart. It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them." This irony is further explored through the character Jonas in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), a robot who has acquired human prostheses.

In twenty-first century Cinema the Dickian Man/robot/android conflation – certainly in films like The Machine (2013) and Ex Machina (2015), where AI-driven robots are not seen as necessarily inimical to their makers – has been very sophisticatedly reinvoked, undergoing several mutations in the process. But at this stage, robots begin to be presented in ways which conceal or transcend their mechanical origins, and to become, at times indistinguishably, allied to Posthuman Homo sapiens.

For the giant battle robots of Japanese anime and related sf, which are typically though not invariably operated by human pilots, see Mecha. The mecha franchise most famous in the West is Transformers, discussed in the entry for The Transformers – The Movie (1986). A twenty-first-century animated comedy with a robot cast is Robots (2005); the more recent Robots (2009) is theatrical performance exploring human/robot dependency and interaction.

Robots are perhaps the most common sf device used in drama because they can be so conveniently and – if required – so amusingly played by live actors. Notable instances of this tradition include the Out of the Unknown adaptations of Kate Wilhelm's "Andover and the Android" (in The Mile-Long Spaceship, coll 1963) in 1965 and of Isaac Asimov's "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (April 1951 Amazing) in 1966, Alan Ayckbourn's Henceforward (1988), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) with its android crew member Data and Red Dwarf (1988-current) with its "mechanoid" Kryten. Neatly ringing the changes, one of the better comic sequences in Sleeper (1973) has the human protagonist (played by Woody Allen) ineptly impersonating a robot. Some further Television series featuring human-like robots are Holmes and Yo-Yo (1976), Future Cop (1976-1977), Small Wonder (1985-1989) and Mann & Machine (1992).

Anthologies of robot stories are very numerous and include The Robot and the Man (anth 1953) edited by Martin Greenberg, The Coming of the Robots (anth 1963) edited by Sam Moskowitz, Invasion of the Robots (anth 1965) edited by Roger Elwood, and The Metal Smile (anth 1968) edited by Damon Knight. Science Fiction Thinking Machines (anth 1954) edited by Groff Conklin has a section on robots. [BS/DRL/JC]

see also: Automation; Computers; Cybernetics; Cyborgs; Intelligence; Ogre; Planetfall; Technology.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies