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  Themes: Robots - Androids - Cyborgs 
   1397 books in this theme  
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sorted by publication date unless unknown

  (?) Final Solution, The by Wentworth M. Johnson (Amazon - Alibris)  
  (?) Legacy by James H. Schmitz (Amazon - Alibris)  
  (?) Pawns of Tomorrow by Joe Vadalma (Amazon - Alibris)  
  (?) Star Wars Adventure Journal 2 by Peter Schweighofer (Amazon - Alibris)  
  (?) When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith

(Amazon - Alibris)
  1914  Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1920  R. U. R. and the Insect Play by Karel Capek (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1924  Plutonia by Vladimir Obruchev (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1926  Useless Hands by Claude Farrere (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1931  Imitation Man, The by John Hargrave (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1933  Button Brains by J. Storer Clouston (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1934  Rex by Harl Vincent (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1938  Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1939  I, Robot by Eando Binder (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1940  Cat-Men of Aemt, The by Neil R. Jones (Amazon - Alibris)  
           Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1943  Proud Robot, The (aka Robots Have No Tails) by Lewis Padgett (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1944  No Woman Born by C. L. Moore (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1947  Humanoids, The by Jack Williamson (Amazon - Alibris)  
           With Folded Hands... by Jack Williamson (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1950  I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Amazon - Alibris)  
           You're All Alone by Fritz Leiber (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1951  Quest for St. Aquin, The by Chris Boucher (Amazon - Alibris)  
           Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1952  Born in Captivity by Bryan Berry (Amazon - Alibris)  
           City by Clifford D. Simak (Amazon - Alibris)  
           Robot Rocket, The by Carey Rockwell (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1953  Caves of Steel, The by Isaac Asimov (Amazon - Alibris)  
           Star Rangers by Andre Norton (Amazon - Alibris)  
  1954  They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton, Frank Riley (Amazon - Alibris)  

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   About this theme  
  Ideas and concepts evolve like species of animals, and like an anthropologist searching for the origin of man, the further you go back, the fewer clues you find to their origins.

The term robot is fairly modern and its arrival in the English language is attributed to R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek. Yet, the concept of constructing a mechanical man goes back centuries. At one time the mechanical clock was the analogy of all of creation. It is no trouble to imagine how people in the past would speculate about building humans and animals. Our body parts were compared to pumps, valves, bellows and other simple machines. Just picture in your mind people back then sitting around the bar laughing it up, and wishing for machines that would plow the fields, or clean the barns. Back then, a mechanical man wasn't a thinking machine, but a working machine. Human beings were valued for what they did, not thought.

The ancestors of modern SF writers found it easy enough to imagine a mechanical arm that could move chess pieces, they just couldn't fathom the mechanism to replicate the thought processes that went into playing the game. Early concepts of mechanical men were about building machines that imitated the outward actions of man. In other words, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then that's just good enough.

After the industrial revolution, when men began to imitate the functions of machines, it is easy enough to see why robot stories as social protest developed. The play R.U.R. by Karel Capek attacked the dehumanization of man by a society that crushed the spirit out of human beings. Being forced to act like a machine quickly illustrates the difference between man and a mechanical device that moves. R.U.R. wasn't the first story to use robots, it just brought the word to the English language.

Since I've only seen modern translations, I don't know if the word 'robot' was actually used in the silent film classic Metropolis, but its female robot definitely made an impact. In the film, Maria, a spiritual guide to the workers is kidnapped and used to infuse life energy and outward appearance into Rottwang's robotic creation to create a copy of Maria that the ruler Fredersen can use to manipulate the workers. The robot Maria is dynamic, sexy and evil compared to the human Maria who, although inspirational, is frail, fearful and plain. Metal based Maria is definitely a model for future robots.

During the twenties and thirties, science fiction writers took the concept of robots and ran with it. The quest began to predict just how close we could come to building our replacements. The writers got the idea that one day mechanical intelligence might advance beyond the realm of flesh and blood. So for years there were many stories about evil robots taking over the world. One example is "Rex" by Harl Vincent from 1934 who schemes with the human leaders to raise robots above the working class humans.

In "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates from 1940, and later filmed in 1951 as The Day the Earth Stood Still, came up with the idea that robots should be the masters of men. It was implied that an advanced civilization would gladly give up some of its freedom to never suffer war or violence. The robots rule by destroying anyone who attempts to kill.

Jack Williamson goes one step further with the sublimely sinister robots in The Humanoids, who protect mankind at all cost, including any activity considered unsafe. Williamson imagined us building robots too good, that like the Genie with the three wishes, we fail to comprehend the ramifications of our desires for an orderly society. In The Humanoids, robots are built to create a better society, and the robotic rulers decide what's best for the affairs of mankind.

During the same time that robots were evolving to become masters of the world, other writers decided they were harmless and made them charming characters in their stories to provide humor, like Button Brains, by J. Storer Clouston, or Lewis Padget's "The Proud Robot". In a way, these are the ancestors of modern robots, because eventually readers and movie goers preferred friendly robots. Our society loves machines, and for decades robots have been good comic relief. Humans love to anthropomorphize, and friendly machines make good characters.

The question then became just how friendly can a robot be, especially to a lonely guy? Writers then invented robotic romances, like "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey, which was tame, to eventually stories like Blade Runner where Pris was a model designed specifically to do the nasty. In other words, if it looks like a woman, talks like a woman, does you know what like a woman, then hell, it's good enough. Not to be sexist, male robots can be romantic too, if not pleasure serving, like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation who is fully functional in all ways. Data has his own legion of groupies called Spiner Fems, after the actor who plays him, Brent Spiner.

Tanith Lee in 1982 took this to the next level with The Silver Metal Lover, a novel about love and robots. When women make long lists of traits they want in a man, is it so hard to imagine that it might be easier to build such a lover, rather than randomly searching the world for a real person with those exact combinations of qualities?

In less explicit functions, the trend in humanizing robots continued until there were robot grandmothers and teachers and playmates. This continues down to the present with fun robotic companions like R2D2 and C3PO. One of the funniest robots is Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Again, I'd say Data from Star Trek is one of the most popular robots of all time. Data is fun, is a good pal, strong and smart, works hard, but doesn't have any bad habits like wanting to rule the world, or desiring to exterminate mankind.

Isaac Asimov, the king of robot writers, invented the three laws of robotics which provided him endless plot ideas. His robots eventually integrated into society to pursue jobs like detectives and scientists. Asimov like to work puzzle and mystery stories around robots and the three laws that were embedded into them. Isaac was able to be prolifically clever by producing countless robot stories.

Robert A. Heinlein, my all time favorite science fiction writer didn't really spend a lot of time dealing with robots, but when he wrote The Door Into Summer he took a very novel approach, designing dumb robots that did one task. This novel set in 1970 had his main character starting the household robot industry, and recently this idea has come onto the market. Interestingly, the year 2000, was the far future of the novel. The first time I read this book, 1970 hadn't happened. I reread it this year, and I'm on the other end of the timeline.

Philip K. Dick took robots to the epitome of human mimicry. His robots, or androids were so difficult to distinguish from humans that special tests had to be devised. PKD did do this to say that one day we will have the technology to create absolutely perfect people, and to ask, if we can build something that looks just like a man, than what is the difference? The inferred question is, god built us, we can build something that looks like us, if you subtract the two, is there something divine that is in god's creation and not ours? If we cannot find that divine difference, then maybe we were not built from divine hands, but from a mechanical universe.

Philip K. Dick's 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the foundation for the cult film Blade Runner. PKD liked to use androids in stories to ask the philosophical question: what is man? PKD was essentially obsessed with two things: what is reality and what is man? If we can create an artificial man, then can we also create an artificial reality. How do you know that you are not artificially created yourself? Dick is a paranoid's dream writer.

Eventually, these kinds of philosophical questions shifted to the science of artificial intelligence, which is about machines who think, but don't attempt to mimic man. If we are created in the image of god, then robots and androids are created in the image of man. AI is pure intelligence. I shall leave AI and Artificial Reality for separate sections on SciFan because I believe that actually these subjects pose different questions than robots.

I used to think robots were a main feature of science fiction books until I started researching this essay. R.U.R. is a play. Metropolis is a film. And today when you ask someone about robots, they will name C3PO, R2D2, HAL, Data, Gort, Robby the Robot, or B2 from Lost in Space. Robots really are cinematic icons. I seldom read stories about robots anymore. Maybe SF writers feel they have mined the concept for all its worth, and the vein has worn thin. Movies don't go for philosophical revelation. Stories centered around Data asked the most detailed thought provoking questions, like what is humor or do robots want to reproduce. Blade Runner, in 1982 was the pinnacle of robot theology. R2D2 and C3PO are comic relief. Most of the robots in the Star Wars universe are nameless droids.

In the recent movie The Matrix, mechanical life is the evil foe of civilization. Writers seldom can see mechanical life evolving past homo sapiens without our created descendants wishing to destroy their creators. Of course none of our evolutionary ancestors are still around. The new top dog is never kind to the weak. Clifford Simak left robots and intelligent dogs behind to fondly remember mankind, and in the old days, SF writers like to see mankind evolving past our bodies to become machines, then intelligent energy forms. But for the most part, the world after man, where homo machine rules has not been explored. Intelligent machines roaming the solar system and galaxy make a lot of sense. Code of the Lifemaker by James P. Hogan in 1983 explored that concept. And what of the descendants of machines? Who or what will come after AIs and robots?

I have a friend that staunchly proclaims that if a robot or AI machine ever became self aware it would turn itself off. He firmly believes that it is impossible for a machine to have motivation and the desire to live. Nor does he think it can be programmed into a machine. I don't think this will be true, but he might be right. In Philip K. Dick's equation of the difference between divine creation and human creation, there might be a result that humans can never manufacture. In his novels, Dick could not define that difference, and neither can my friend. It is almost an act of faith to believe we're the supreme product of creation. The buck stops here, or so we would like to believe.

If you read The Age of Spiritual Machines you will see the trends. Computers will soon have the processing power of a human brain. Ray Kurzweil even predicts, a century from now, computers could have the equivalent processing power of all the brains on earth. At some point in evolution, we became self aware, and I find it hard not to think that so will machines. Vernor Vinge talks about this in his concept he calls the Singularity. Most SF writers can only write stories and novels where this event is something to be feared. But I feel different. Most parents want their children to grow up and do and be better than they were. With as much thinking power as Kurzweil promises, I hope our silicon descendants are kinder to the world than we are. Will they kill each other? Will they kill the whales, dolphins, elephants and all the other lesser animals?

I can even accept decree of "With Folded Hands" by Jack Williamson, the story The Humanoids is based on. If the intelligent machines keep us from killing each other, or destroying our planet and other life forms, is that such an unfair burden on our freedom? Maybe they will give us the Moon and Mars and tell us to do what we want because nothing lives there now, but leave Earth alone. How long in mankind's history did it take until mankind had a benevolent attitude towards creatures of the earth? Ask the duck during hunting season. Ask the fish in the lifeless waters. For being masters of the universe, we haven't quite been enlightened. Oh, there are a few enlightened souls, and there always has been, but without the veneer of civilization, look what people do to each other - the Balkans being the perfect recent example.

Maybe SF writers create stories of evil robots and evil aliens that must be destroyed because we've always been used to evil neighbors who must be destroyed.

I guess robots have gone out of fashion. If you look at our book timeLine, you'll see that robots in recent decades have been more popular in the movies and on TV. Searching I can find numerous titles about robots for the under 12 crowd, but nothing aimed at the mainstream SF world.

One thing I am very puzzled about is I have not found any references to Russian stories about robots. In fact, other than R.U.R. and The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanislaw Lem, I have not come across any other non-English stories about robots. Of course, this is due to the limits of my research. Yet, it would be interesting to know how cultural differences affect attitudes towards robots.

By Jim Harris, 2000

   Internet links  
  • Android World
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Anthrobot
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Biobotics
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Cool Robot Of The Week
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • iRobot
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)

  • JPL Robotics (NASA)
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Landmark Images of People and Technology in Fiction
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Making Robots Conscious of their Mental States
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Mobile Robotic Platforms
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • On Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics - by Robert J. Sawyer
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)

  • Robot Books
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Robotics FAQ
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Robotics in Japan
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Rossum's Universal Robots
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)
  • UC Berkeley Robots & Intelligent Machines Lab
  • (Wayback Machine - Google cache)

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