Speculative Fiction: Androids and the Prometheus Myth

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One of the most interesting and fun Speculative Fiction tropes is the playfulness, which can be terrifying at times, with which the genre tackles the myth of Prometheus.

Prometheus, a titan, managed to avoid being involved in the cosmic battle between Zeus, and his Olympians, and Cronos, with his titans. When the other titans were destroyed or banished, Prometheus survived. The struggle between the Olympians and the Titans is metaphorical of the struggle between generations, parents and their children and of parents eventually needing to give ground to the growth, vitality and change that the next generation can bring. Prometheus, who created humans, then plays the parental figure to humanity in this metaphor. When Zeus, angered by a trick Prometheus plays on him, takes away fire from humans and Prometheus gives it back the subplot thickens because now not only has humanity begun at the hands of Prometheus, but he has given us the power of fire which begins the cycle of hunting and gathering and general industrialization.

Now we come to robots, or androids as they are otherwise known. An android is an automaton built by humans to resemble a human being. Really, the term could thus be applied to a wide array of constructs seen in both fiction and reality, from any mindless robot that resembles humans at the superficial level, to a perfect replica with practically indistinguishable features.

The first appearance of a true android in fiction is arguable. The word was popularized by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s The Future Eve, but many earlier works feature artificial men, from Edward S. Ellis’ Steam Man on the Prairies to the children’s literature of L. Frank Baum and his character Tik Tok from Oz.

 

Yet even earlier still is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein otherwise known as The Modern Prometheus. Dr. Frankenstein, our modern Prometheus, creates the monster who may also have been the first android to show a Pinocchio-like desire for genuine humanity in spite of his artificial origins. Indeed, it is this trait, exhibited in many later android or robot characters like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, that is so fascinating.

Young Adult Speculative Fiction, books like Robin Wasserman’s Skinned or Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox for instance, fashion teens into androids and have them struggle with their non-humanity. The teens, even in books where the teen is a clone as in Sandler’s Tankborn, are pitted against their creators, or the adults in order to discover what their purpose is and who they really are.

While these books are very true to the young adult trope of teens struggling against authority through their own coming-of-age story, they also get to play around with the Prometheus complex and the morality issues brought up by the myth – which for me, just adds an extra layer of speculation that is fascinating- but also terrifying. Often, if not in all cases, the young adults generally succeed over the adults, which points to the inevitable success of androids over humans – doesn’t it?

  • What an interesting comparison you’re making. I’ve never read any YA featuring robots, but I’m quite interested now – first, because I like YA and I like robots, and then because of this Prometheus structure in these books. I’ll look up your examples and maybe read some of them. 🙂

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  • Janet

    Really interesting post, Stephie! On a related note, the word “robot” was coined by Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), in which the robots were made of a previously unknown substance so similar to our own that they looked identical to humans. “Robots” initially didn’t indicate metal beings but was much closer to today’s androids than to modern robots. (Or to George Lucas’ metal droids, which I assume is an abbreviated form of androids.)

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