I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the humanoid robot, or android, as long as I’ve been reading science fiction, and fortunately there are loads of examples out there for people who find themselves fascinated by such things. Although at first it may seem like androids make a simple statement about our humanity—or lack thereof—I think there are different ways that androids play into a commentary on our species. And in terms of narrative, they’re characters, sometimes even the protagonist, they’ve been used as themes, reflections, and on occasion are the plot itself. So with a fondness for the non-carbon community, let’s look at some messages in popular culture that come from how androids have been conceptualized.
The traveler looking for purpose and meaning—Never has this idea been made more popular than by the omnipresence of Data on Star Wars: The Next Generation. Data didn’t seem to understand that his fixation on seeming human enough made him one of the most neurotic characters on the show. (Of course, no one tops Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but that’s beside the point.) From the Tin Man to the character of Zoe on Caprica, androids take up a space of insurmountable difference. A heart on a chain and a lifetime of human memories does not and can not make one human. And so the android continually measures the length of their experience, looking to identify when it will mean something more.
The well of darkness or evil—Bishop in Aliens was a double agent, that bastard. But morality tale that Aliens is, Bishop gets what’s coming to him. Other androids certainly have it in for us—Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, anything created by Skynet in the Terminator series—but it’s the capability of creating vast armies of androids that makes the loudest statement on morality. Intelligence without ethics warps to evil. And a community without any sense of individuality is an evil community. Androids let writers make a statement about the tensions in culture by providing the most extreme of examples on those cultural weaknesses.
Better than human—The other side of this moralist coin is the android as exceptional. Forget knowing the day of the week for any day presented, or calculating Pi to 250 digits (which incidentally is: 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510 58209 74944 59230 78164 06286 20899 86280 34825 34211 70679 82148 08651 32823 06647 09384 46095 50582 23172 53594 08128 48111 74502 84102 70193 85211 05559 64462 29489 54930 38196 44288 10975 66593 34461 28475 64823 37867 83165 27120 19091). These androids can walk the surface of inhospitable planets without any breathable air, in extreme temperatures, for decades at a time. They become a kind of superhero, which is why writers are so keen to bring them back down to levels of ordinary, lest we humans start to get jealous. There are also several narratives out there of amazing androids being used as unpaid or low-paid workers, one of the more classic examples being John Brunner’s Slave Nebula. In this way androids are more the effect of human hubris than actors in their own right, which is not itself free from a problematic way of characterizing slavery. And as a sidenote on this and the last point: we love watching movies about androids who go from good to bad. Even Bollywood loves them.
No, really better than human—Let’s face it, some humans suck. We created war, famine, poverty, we kill each other and stand by as unfairness reigns in a chaotic world. In Metropolis, the robot Maria becomes the humans’ leader, the best revolutionary a worker could have. Other androids have rallied their artificial colleagues and comrades, against the exploitation of their human leaders (see: The Matrix, The Terminator, Battleship Galactica, Star Trek, Blade Runner). After all, such leadership is free from the wonky emotions we people have to deal with. In this way androids give us a chance to examine war and hostilities on a grander scale without say, boring us with a history lesson.
The “consent doesn’t count” sexual object—Raechel in Blade Runner, the Fembots in Austin Powers, The Stepford Wives, the robot version of Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer–all are good examples of mechanical people as easy sexual objects for heterosexual men, otherwise averse to having relationships with living women. Why be functional or care about a partner’s needs and preferences? They are perfect mates, always willing to prioritize his desires, the hybrid of technology that came along with women’s liberation but that offers an avenue of re-marginalizing femininity, if not women themselves. Heck, even the term “android” is a masculine term.
Though I’m not sure gyndroid is any better.