The age-old human fascination with machines that mimic us, has manifested itself in literature, commonly called “science fiction”. Until very recently authors could just speculate about these “human robots”, since none had been built yet. But now, with working humanoid robots and androids almost everywhere, the distinction between science “fiction” and “fact” has become somewhat blurred.

The term android was made popular by the French novelist Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in his book, Tomorrow’s Eve (1886). The novel features an artificial “machine-woman”, named Hadaly, created to overcome the flaws of a real woman, and be the “perfect and natural woman who could bring a man true happines”. In effect the world’s first “gynoid”, or “fembot”! 🙂

Ever since, androids have been a staple of science fiction writers. But authors have used the term android loosely to refer to either a synthetic being that closely resembles a human; or a robot that closely resembles a human; or even any machine that mimics a human. In most fictional works, however, the difference between a robot and android is probably only their appearance, with androids looking like humans, but with robotic insides.

Despite these diverse uses of the same phrase, a common thread in most science fiction is the assumption that the technological hurdles in creating (almost) perfect human-like robots, have been overcome. Therefore, these sci-fi androids are usually depicted as mentally and physically equal or, even, superior to human beings … blending in for the most part, and acting convincingly like humans.

But of course, in the eyes of science fiction writers, harmony between humans and perfect humanoid machines cannot usually last and this leads to some sort of tension. In fact, this strain between people and artificial devices with human qualities and ambitions, is often the dramatic impetus behind their fictional works. And there are common themes used time and time again: the android that rebels against humans for one reason or the other, or the android that wants to become a “real” human, even the “misunderstood” android and, of course, the one that’s just plain bad. Often thought, these sci-fi novels are actually stories, nay, lessons to us about the human condition and what it takes and means to call yourself a human.

Roy Batty

Android Roy Batty from Blade Runner

Androids also lend themselves well as a vehicle to explore social injustices, like racism and sexism, since authors are able to avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with such topics. By using these “artificial humans” as character foils, instead of human victims or antagonists, sci-fi writers manage to steer clear of superficial criticism that can sabotage their intended message. For example, racism is explored like this in the famous 1968 science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and its film adaptation Blade Runner.


Pris, the 'pleasure' android in Blade Runner

Another common science fiction theme is the quest by men to create the stereotypical “perfect woman” via female androids (“gynoids” or “fembots”). Often these gynoids are simply created as sex-objects to fulfill men’s sexual fantasies and desires, but sometimes they also have more positive feminine roles. So, sc-fi stories about female androids have often been used as metaphors for sexism, but also criticized as portraying the hatred and violent treatment of women. Conversely, however, these works have sometimes been praised as reinforcing women’s rights and feminism.

There are many famous fictional humanoid robots, gynoids and androids, including Marvin the paranoid android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Data from the science-fiction show Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the “Maria impersonator”, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (a femininely shaped robot who is given skin to enable her to impersonate another female character). For a complete list of robots, humanoid robots and androids/gynoids in fiction, see here.

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