Back | Next


Although the word robot was taken from Karel Capek's 1921 play R. U.R., derived from the Czech word robata, the idea of artificial men, beings created by other men, has haunted the imagination of humanity for thousands of years, going at least as far back as the legends of men of bronze and tin to be found in Greek and Roman mythology, like Talos, the giant made of bronze who was said to guard the shores of Crete by running around the island three times daily and throwing huge rocks at any enemy invaders. Tales of robots or mechanical men have a long tradition in science fiction, entering the body of science fiction proper soon after there began to recognizably be such a thing, in the nineteenth century, and persisting to the present day.

The number of robot stories appearing each year has varied from decade to decade, with writers seemingly more preoccupied with them in some years than in others, as robot stories went in and out of style; the heyday of the robot story was probably the '40s and '50s and early '60s, when Isaac Asimov was writing his famous cycle of robot stories, including the robot novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun; Brian W. Aldiss was producing the stories that would go into his collection And Who Can Replace a Man?; Jack Williamson was writing "With Folded Hands;" C. L. Moore was writing "No Woman Born;" Henry Kuttner was producing the stories that went into Robots Have No Tails; Alfred Bester was producing "Fondly Fahrenheit;" Philip K. Dick was writing "Second Variety" and "imposter;" Clifford Simak was writing City and "All the Traps of Earth;" and Harry Harrison was writing about The War with the Robots. Most of the anthologies of robot stories that have been published—Damon Knight's The Metal Smile, Robert Silverberg's Men and Machines, Sam Moskowitz's The Coming of the Robots, Roger Elwood's Invasion of the Robots—have drawn primarily on stories from those decades.

The "New Wave" days of the mid to late '60s to the mid '70s, with their emphasis on introspective, stylistically "experimental" work and work with more immediate sociological and political "relevance" to the tempestuous social scene of the day, saw fewer robot stories being published (with a few significant exceptions, such as Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man"). In the '80s and '90s, much of the dialogue about robots in the field was subsumed in the examination of the concept of artificial intelligence (see our previous Ace anthology A.Ls for stories of this type), to the extent that Asimov's later robot novels such as The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire were criticized as being retro by some commentators, no longer having anything to contribute to the back-and-forth debate about the nature of artificial intelligence going on among the younger writers in the field.

In the real world, the development of humanoid robots, robots of the same shape, size, and general body-plan as humans, has proved surprisingly difficult, even in the fundamental engineering problem of making robots articulate and move like humans, let alone the problem df investing them with some form of self-contained and reasonably functional intelligence—let alone sentience and an intellectual capacity equal or superior to us. In The Door into Summer, published in 1957, Robert A. Heinlein could confidently predict that his robotic servants and house-cleaners, the Hired Girls, would be in existence by 1970, but 1970 has come and gone (even the "future" of Heinlein's novel, the year 2000, has come and gone!), and so far only the most primitive ancestors of the sophisticated Hired Girls, disk-shaped robot vacuum cleaners that scoot around by themselves vacuuming your floors, have actually come on to the market. In spite of the lack of clanking humanoid servants, though, robots surround us in our daily lives—not in humanoid form, but in the thousand forms of industrial robots, from gigantic to tiny, who have taken over many of the world's industrial tasks, and in the form of all the myriad machines, unnoticed and unremarked, that perform a multitude of menial tasks for us, from those that help apply the brakes in your car to those that open the supermarket doors for you, saturating our lives in ways that Heinlein never could have imagined back in 1957. Ironically, considering Asimov's famous First Law of Robotics—"a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm"—the most technologically sophisticated robots developed to date are designed specifically for the task of killing people: cruise missiles and smart bombs. Asimov's humanoid, general-purpose, intelligent robots may not be developed for decades to come—if they are ever developed at all.

Robots still continue to fascinate us, though, and, as you shall see in the anthology that follows, still stalk through the pages of science fiction. In fact, robots have made something of a comeback in the later '90s and the aughts, perhaps because of the popularity of Big Budget robot movies such as The Terminator, A.I., The Bicentennial Man, and I, Robot, or perhaps just because the idea itself, sentient machines that look and act like us, is so archtypically potent. Many of science fiction's most significant tropes may spring from a kind of cosmic loneliness, the desire to have someone else in the universe to talk with. Aliens are one fictional solution to the problem of having another race of sentient creatures to interact with—and the other great solution is robots. If you can't find other sentient creatures out there in the universe, the next best thing is to make them yourself. Perhaps this is why robot stories are becoming more popular again, as many people grow discouraged with the hope that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is ever going to turn up anything. This may also be reflected in the changing attitudes toward robots manifested in many of these stories, from the sinister figures out to supplant or destroy or infiltrate us common in the '50s and '60s to helpmates and caregivers, companions, compatriots, sources of solace both physical and spiritual, even our eventual anointed successors in the universe.

So open the pages of this book, and let some of today's most expert dreamers show you more variations on the complex future relationship of humans and machines—some funny, some sad, some moving, some bizarre—than you've ever imagined before. Enjoy!

(For other speculations on these and similar themes, check out our Ace anthologies A.I.s, Beyond Flesh, Nano-tech, Hackers, Immortals, Future War, Space Soldiers, and coedited by Sheila Williams—Isaac Asimov's Robots.)

Back | Next