A tin foil for humanity
April 3, 2012 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend sci-fi featuring “noble” androids.

I’m interested in fiction in any format (short stories, novels, film, etc.) that depicts mechanical life forms in ways that contrast the flaws of humanity.

Here are two examples. In Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, Hesperus, one of the Machine People, valiantly aids the human protagonists despite humanity’s genocide of another machine race. In Iain Banks’ Against a Dark Background, the android Feril helps the human protagonist who is mired in a conspiracy of religious fanaticism, greed, and megalomania.

I’m most interested in depictions where the robot has humanoid form though it wouldn’t be mistaken for human (so not human facsimile androids like Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw, drones or Minds from Banks’ Culture universe, or other artificial intelligences that exist in a “box” e.g. MULTIVAC).

That said, I’m still interested in the contrast of character between machine and human, so I welcome recommendations that include artificial life broadly defined. For instance, I found the interchange between the Hub Mind and Composer Ziller in Banks’ Look to Windward, when the Mind reflects on the horrors of war, particularly compelling.

As I’m looking for machines that contrast human flaws, I’m not interested in evil or psychotic artificial life such as Skynet, HAL, or the computer from “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Ethically complex or ambiguous characters, however, are OK so long as there’s some contrast between human and machine.

Thanks for your recommendations.
posted by audi alteram partem to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing that came to my mind was Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series. I haven't read it in over a decade, but I think the character Sheen might represent some of the qualities you describe. She's an realistic humanoid robot programmed to love the hero; the difference between her programmed love and actual love is definitely debated. I think there are other characters in the books that also explore the boundaries and differences between robots/androids (and other Others in the world) and humans.
posted by juliplease at 6:07 AM on April 3, 2012

Data, from Star Trek TNG -- perhaps a little obvious, and probably the most famous example.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:15 AM on April 3, 2012

There's the Ray Bradbury story "I Sing The Body Electric," which was adapted by him for the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and then again in a Peabody-award-winning TV movie The Electric Grandmother in 1982.
posted by griphus at 6:29 AM on April 3, 2012

Data, from Star Trek TNG -- perhaps a little obvious, and probably the most famous example.

Agreed, and perhaps the best illustration is the episode "Deja Q" (link contains spoilers).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:30 AM on April 3, 2012

The one in the Hyperion books. Biological-based rather than robotic tho.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2012

You might be interested in Ted Chiang's wonderful story "Exhalation."
posted by gerryblog at 6:53 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The one in the Hyperion books.

That would be The Shrike (spoilery link).
posted by fight or flight at 7:04 AM on April 3, 2012

That would be The Shrike (spoilery link).

I think ROU_Xenophobe meant A. Bettik from the Endymion books, who is a pretty transparent stand-in for Jim from Huckleberry Finn.
posted by theodolite at 7:11 AM on April 3, 2012

There are some noble and ignoble androids in Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series (which is total space opera).

There are also some great androids \ robots in Aasimov's I, Robot collection.

You may enjoy CJ Cherryh's novella Voyager in Night, which has a ship AI with many divergent personalities interacting with a small group of humans that end up on the ship.

My favorite example (which unfortunately breaks your critera) is the android in Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep.
posted by machinecraig at 7:20 AM on April 3, 2012

Robert J. Sawyer just wrote a series where the Internet becomes self-aware, and it is very noble and helpful with regards to helping humanity. Here is a link to the first book.
posted by bove at 7:24 AM on April 3, 2012

I think ROU_Xenophobe meant A. Bettik from the Endymion books

Oh, I had forgotten about him!

Thinking about it, The Shrike may also fit. It's humanoid in form and spends a decent portion of its life (in the Endymion books, at least) solely dedicated to protecting a human. Although I guess the whole "routinely slaughters people and then pins them to a giant tree made out of metal spikes" thing kind of erodes the nobility of its actions, so at best it's a "morally ambiguous" character.
posted by fight or flight at 7:32 AM on April 3, 2012

The one that sprang to mind for me was Andrew Martin from "The Bicentennial Man". His function plot-wise isn't to aid humans in any particular way, but it'd be hard to argue that he's not a noble character.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:01 AM on April 3, 2012

I’m not interested in evil or psychotic artificial life such as Skynet, HAL...

Go back and watch 2010. The HAL story is deeper than that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:09 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Moon's on the spot for the kind of stories I'm thinking of: humans engaged in egregious behavior--in this case treating people as disposable--contrasted with a machine mind that acts with more humanity than those humans.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:10 AM on April 3, 2012

In Walter Tevis' novel Mockingbird, the android Spofforth has been dean of New York University for hundreds of years and has observed the decay of human civilization to the point where he may be the only literate "person" in the world. Compared to the pitiful degenerate humans of his day, Spofforth is certainly a noble character, and his actions do bring a glimmer of hope to the world.
posted by General Tonic at 8:22 AM on April 3, 2012

Tik-Tok in the Frank Baum Oz books (first introduced in the third book, Ozma of Oz) has to be one of the first uses of this trope.

Do not confuse this with Tik-Tok by John Sladek, which you probably don't want to read.
posted by bonehead at 9:06 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ekaterian Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone.
posted by muddgirl at 9:07 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's Ekaterina. It's pretty explicitely about how humanity is terrible, but sometimes we create things better than ourselves, and other times we don't.
posted by muddgirl at 9:10 AM on April 3, 2012

Bishop from the movie Aliens.

Helen, the computer in Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2, is a machine intelligence trying to understand humanity by reading for an M.A. in English Lit. Her final speech, once she finally starts to understand us, is heartbreaking.
posted by gauche at 10:21 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gateway by Frederick Pohl has a psychotherapist AI (Sigfrid von Shrink). He manipulates the main character (Rob) and delves into the complex emotions of the human subject, but in a psychoanalytic (not malicious) way. It's a good book and won a bunch of awards (if that means anything), and I definitely recommend it!
posted by thebots at 12:30 PM on April 3, 2012

In the Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick, dragons are malevolently intelligent fighter jets that can only be flown by fae with the taint of mortal blood. Because fairies are so intermingled and humans basically don't exist in the 'verse, very few fae can fly them. Because the dragons are so evil, they also often corrupt their pilots.

They're not humanoid, but you said that you were into other examples that explore the difference between human and machine, and that series does so hard.

Melissa Scott's Dreamships 'verse is about the development of Artificial Intelligence and its implications for workers' rights.
posted by spunweb at 12:36 PM on April 3, 2012

Oh!! And John Barnes' excellent Century Next Door series has this thing called "mut-AIDS" which basically branches the idea of a meme in genetics and a meme in memetics -- it's a biologically based computer virus that absorbs bodies and minds into itself, and ultimately gives its infectees freedom from complex human emotions as long as they "host" it. Really great exploration of the tensions between individual and collective rights, and what it means to be a part of a "machine." You'd specifically want to look at Candle and A Sky So Big and So Black.

The Thousand Cultures series by him also specifically explores these same themes with androids, particularly in Merchant of Souls and The Armies of Memory.
posted by spunweb at 12:40 PM on April 3, 2012

machinecraig: "My favorite example (which unfortunately breaks your critera) is the android in Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep."

Wracking my brain to try to figure out who or what you might mean. Pham Nuwen? He's described as being a human (if perhaps one constructed out of parts) and infused with "godshatter," but I don't think he's ever viewed or described as an android. With the possible exception of Countermeasure, I think all the other intelligences in the novel are described as either organic or divine, not robotic.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:30 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Conrad - you are spot on, I completely forgot that he was rebuilt out of human parts and not machine. Thanks for that correction!
posted by machinecraig at 8:25 AM on April 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations. They've pointed me in directions I wouldn't have thought of myself.

And Kid Charlemagne, re: Go back and watch 2010. The HAL story is deeper than that. I realize that HAL's story is more complex than "evil robot run amok," but his bad acts (i.e. killing his human crew) resulted from the character faults of his human programers (Cold War paranoia, the beauracratic tendency to compartamentalize and withhold information, the desire to exploit discoveries for one's in-group instead of sharing new knowledge for the good of all, mucking about with complex computer systems without thinking through the consequences etc.). So, instead of contrasting human flaws, HAL (and those responsible for his behavior) enact our flaws.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:56 AM on April 30, 2012

« Older is Alamo car rental ok?   |   Distance learning novel writing course wanted Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.