Last time we left off with Isaac Asimov's happy-go-lucky depiction of robots. But stories about robots, in response to the times, again turned dark after World War II. The start of Jack Williamson's Humanoids series reflected the recently demonstrated truism that sometimes technological inventions could have catastrophic consequences. Mankind's humanoid creations, charged with protecting their masters, take their assignment a bit too literally and conclude their human masters should be permanently tranquilized and given lobotomies to protect them from themselves.
Another popular robot in science fiction was Gnut, the powerful robotic servant to an alien visitor named Klatuu in the 1940 story "Farewell to the Master" written by Harry Bates. This classic story was adapted for the screen as The Day the Earth Stood Still (the must-watch 1951 version and a must-avoid 2008 version) where the robot was renamed Gort. Both story and film have something to say about mankind's place in the universe, but it seemed as if science fiction was once again unfavorable toward robots.
That anti-robot stance wasn't universal by any means, and it eventually began to subside. In 1968, Ted Hughes wrote The Iron Man, a universally appealing fairy tale about a giant robot that befriends a small boy in rural America. The book was later renamed to The Iron Giant to avoid confusion with a certain red- and yellow-armored superhero and has since received an enjoyable film treatment in 1999. The "robot wants to be human" trope returned as well. More recently, in Sue Lange's We, Robots (the title a nod to Asimov), where an egg-shaped robot named Avey becomes more human even while humans are on the verge on becoming posthuman.
Robot stories are often vehicles of deeper meaning. Stanislaw Lem's philosophical collection of robot stories, The Cyberiad, focuses on societal and individual issues as it attempts to show the futility of achieving happiness through technology. Clifford D. Simak addresses religion (and the disappearance of mankind) through the religious robot character Hezekiel in A Choice of Gods. Meanwhile, Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, asks, "Would you let your daughter marry a robot?"
Robots can be the source of fun, too: Harry Harrison wrote a sequence of lighthearted stories collected as War with the Robots; Fritz Leiber did a comical take on robots with The Silver Eggheads; John Sladek re-invoked the robot trope in his novels Roderick and its sequel Roderick at Random which are still well-regarded satire; and A. Lee Martinez wrote the robot detective noir comedy The Automatic Detective. On the ambitious front, a wonderful coffee table book, Boilerplate, shows the appearance of a Victorian-era robot throughout history.
When you think of robots, you think of cold, hard logic. Yet sometimes robot stories—particularly short fiction stories—can be emotionally touching. Such is the case with the title story in The Robot's Twilight Companion by Tony Daniel, as well as stories by Ted Chiang ("Exhalation"), Mike Resnick ("Robots Don't Cry" and "Article of Faith"), Mary Robinette Kowal ("Evil Robot Monkey"), Michael Swanwick ("Ancient Engines"), Rachel Swirsky ("Eros, Philia, Agape"), and Jeff VanderMeer ("Fixing Hanover").
As we come to a close on this survey of our metal friends in science fiction, it appears that the use of robots in science fiction shows no signs of abating. Recently published was Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, a summer thrill ride involving a rogue artificial intelligence and a robot war. Keeping with the trend of adapting robot stories, Robopocalypse is already headed to the big screen to be produced by Steven Spielberg.
So it looks like they're here to stay and I, for one, welcome our robot Overlords.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.