Monday, July 2, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Androids Are Everywhere

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be taking a look at one of the oldest science fiction tropes in the book: androids.

According to most dictionaries, an android is an automaton built to resemble a human being. The term could thus be applied to a wide array of constructs seen in both fiction and reality, from any mindless robot that resembles us at the superficial level, to a perfect replica(nt) with practically indistinguishable features.

A prime cinematic example of the latter is Bishop from the movie Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 sequel to the Ridley Scott scifi-horror classic. For the most part, Bishop looks and acts just like any other member of the crew--not counting that fancy knife trick, of course.

Though androids are a staple of science fiction, we might be able to trace the roots of this trope much further back. Mythologies, religious texts, and prehistoric literature around the world have stories that feature artificial humans, built by way of mechanical or sometimes magical means, from the Golem of Jewish folklore to the "iron man" Talus of The Fairie QueeneThe Iliad portrays the god of mechanical arts, Hephaestus, as being assisted in his work by animated statues. They are described as "living young damsels, filled with minds and wisdoms" despite being made completely out of gold.

Meanwhile, folklore in Finland speaks of Seppo Ilmarinen, an immortal blacksmith capable of forging nearly anything. In some tales, he's even said to have built the dome of the sky. Alas, despite his prowess as the Eternal Hammerer, he has trouble finding Ms. Right. In one story, stricken with grief over the death of his first wife, Ilmarinen attempts to craft a woman out of gold and silver. He is successful, but finds his new wife too cold to hold.

The first appearance of a true android in fiction is arguable. The word was popularized by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's The Future Eve, but many earlier works feature artificial men, from Edward S. Ellis' Steam Man on the Prairies to Tik Tok of L. Frank Baum's Oz series.

The correct answer may be one of the earliest works in the science fiction genre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein's monster may also have been the first android to show a Pinocchio-like desire for genuine humanity in spite of his artificial origins (in fact, before Pinocchio himself), a trait exhibited in many later characters, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I've yet to create any androids of my own, though some of my stories have dealt with a pesky A.I. or two, including the one I'm working on right now. It's very possible my inner scifi nerd will one day lead me down a path that ends in androids, and I'm fine with that. While that path is certainly well-trodden enough to be considered cliche at this point, I still can't get enough of them.

And clearly, I'm not the only one. Human beings have been enchanted by the idea of artificial people since the dawn of the written word, and we haven't stopped building them in our fiction. The most recent example in popular fiction is Ridley Scott's Prometheus. While met with mixed reviews, even those with largely negative opinions of the film are heaping praise on Michael Fassbender's performance as David, the eponymous vessel's android crew member. While most point to this as an example of Fassbender's talent as an actor, I think it also proves that our fascination with this kind of character isn't going anywhere. At least not until the real androids are walking the streets.

Recommended Reading:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov
Home Is the Hangman by Roger Zelazny

Recommended Viewing:
Blade Runner

Recommended Gaming:
The Journeyman Project
Mega Man


  1. Ooh, now I have an idea for a story about one of Hephaestus' maidens wandering away from the forge and having Adventures in the mortal world. Thanks for the inspiration this morning!

    1. Glad I could be of service, Louise. Sounds like an awesome story!

  2. Awesome post, James! You really take your research seriously, don'tcha? I love the way you crop information together, and your posts on tropes are very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    Androids are way cool. I particularly loved the ones in "I, Robot", but also Bishop and Annalee Call (W. Ryder in Resurrection). And the Terminator!
    I have some androids (and AIs, and worker drones of various sizes) in my WIP, but they don't play any role to the plot. They're just part of the setting. Like self-aware furniture! :D

    1. Thanks, Vero! Research is probably the most fun part about writing these. The tropes series entries are quickly becoming my favorite posts to work on each month. I love tracing popular elements of fiction back into their mythological pseudo-origins. It brings the history nerd and scifi nerd in me together!

      And I agree with your choice of androids. There were a lot of awesome ones that I left out. Surprisingly though, the recommended gaming list was tough to make. Turns out there hasn't been nearly as many true androids in video game history as I would've thought. Lots of robots and cyborgs, but androids are mostly missing.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Hm... come to think of it, the Terminator probably falls into the robot category then, since he never wants to be part of human society, what ever "nice" version of him I think of.
      And ooooooooh the Borg cyborgs... *drool*

  3. J.W. this is a terrific history of the Android.

  4. I don't know... the thought of androids roaming the Earth is a sort of terrifying concept to me. I, Robot comes to mind, but then I love Data. Maybe as long as they stay in fiction I'll be happy. :)

    This was a fun and informative post to read, thanks! I would have never thought to look so far back for the origins of the concept of an android, but it does make a lot of sense. I'm more of a fantasy writer myself so I don't think I'd ever put androids into any of my stories... but instead of a mechanical android, maybe a magical one? Hmmmm....

    Thanks again,


    1. There's definitely some terrifying potential there.

      You might be surprised how many science fiction concepts and tropes have roots in folk tales and mythology. And a magical android sounds cool to me. Give it a shot, I say!

      Thanks for reading, Renee.

  5. I never knew this trope dated back to such ancient times! Keep these coming!

    Oh. How was Prometheus?

    1. Will do, magic mint!

      I'm still torn on Prometheus. It had definite pacing and characterization issues, and I see everyone's complaints about it. But I still enjoyed it for the amazing visuals and awesome symbolism throughout (but I'm a nerd for stuff like that--many bad movies have been saved for me on these grounds). I'm actually thinking about seeing it again before it leaves theaters, as I don't think I'll get the same enjoyment out of it on the small screen.

      Thanks for the visit, magic mint!


Thanks for reading!