The Androids that Feel

November 11, 2010

I’ve been rereading my battered copy of Asimov’s I Robot. At least, that’s what I’ve been doing in between watching old episodes of Andromeda and Star Trek: Voyager. With all this repeated exposure to the not-wholly organic, I’ve come to reaffirm something.

Androids, robots, and cyborgs are really cool. 

Our metallic cousins have always held a strong fascination for me. Which is somewhat ironic, when you consider that one of my greatest fears as a small child was inanimate things like statues or mannequins coming to life and eating me. But I digress.

To be more specific, the aspect of non-organic life that interests me most is the search for hmanity among the strictly non-human. It actually seems to be a relatively common storyline in SF: the android/cyborg that is simultaneously beguiled by/frightened of their own emotions, until they reach a reconciliation of some description. It plays out in Andromeda, with Rommie (as an aside, there’s some really subtle acting over the course of that character’s development); in Voyager, with Seven of Nine (technically a cyborg), and I would also argue in James Tiptree Jr.’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In.

So these various non-humans are striving to find some form of humanity. So what? Robots appeal to me because they separate humanity from being human. They aren’t alive, but they can still love. They may or may not have souls, but they can still feel joy, sorrow, hope, fear… To me, there’s something beautiful in that struggle to feel, to open oneself up to emotion that, being inorganic, one isn’t obliged to feel in the same way humans have to feel things. It takes a certain kind of courage to accept love, knowing that it will probably lead to heartache, to embrace joy, knowing that it opens you up to sorrow.

Furthermore, these inorganic beings can act as a metaphor for our acceptance of this “higher road.” Ultimately, it makes us better people. However, we all know that if you’ve been hurt before, it can be extremely difficult to make yourself vulnerable again. The stakes are even higher for the inorganic, for as the canon of SF shows us, they quite often suffer for their emotions… and yet they accept them anyway. Even the threat of dismantlement, or years of programming/training is not enough for them to abandon their fledgling humanity.

Too often, we harden our hearts. We turn away from the uncomfortable. We deny the emotions that hurt us, leaving them to fester and poison us from within. The android that feel do this too. However, eventually, they stop walling themselves off.

They feel.

They become, in a sense, human. Often more human than the organic beings that gave them “life.”

What a wonderful story.




  1. Some people just can’t stand robot stories because they keep stepping back and thinking, “this is just a machine. How can I sympathize with it?” But we CAN sympathize, if only by humanizing the robot character. Both WALL-E and Spielberg’s AI were utterly ridiculous as plausible stories, but I laughed and cried along with those characters because the storytellers/filmakers made them human for me.

  2. I agree with Michael. Wall-E and AI made the implausible seem plausible.

    Fascinating and thought provoking post, Arvik!

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