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More or Less than Human: What Can Robots Teach Us About Human Relationships?

2013 December 30
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Photo By Johnson Cameraface. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo By Johnson Cameraface. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Robots have long fascinated humanity. Since the word first emerged in a play in the early 1920s, they have been a major fixture in literature, film and, more recently, in games. io9 recently devoted an entire article to great books that change how we think about robots, but what about ways that literature uses robots to change how we think about other philosophical issues? This post collects some young adult books that have robots as major characters or plot points and uses them to consider other important concepts such as friendship, what it means to be human, and how humans should interact with technology.

Robot Dreams by Sara Varon (Great Graphic Novels for Teens 2008) - This virtually wordless graphic novel combines an adorable art style with a tale of friendship between a dog and the robot he built. After a trip to the beach separates them, each contends with loneliness, depression and efforts to replace the friend they have lost. The story is a sad meditation on the importance of friendship and the difficulty of replacing those who are most important in our lives.

cinderCinder by Marissa Meyer (Teens’ Top Ten 2012)- This retelling of the Cinderella story centers around Cinder, a teenage girl who has robotic limbs after an accident in her childhood. As a cyborg in New Beijing, she has few legal rights and a low social status, but this doesn’t stop her from being a well-respected mechanic and from catching the eye of the prince. What seems at first like a simple fairytale retelling set in a world where androids, cyborgs and humans coexist, is used as a way of discussing issues of morality about the way that the lunar people can shape people’s actions to their will and the way that robots and cyborgs are treated by those who created them. Once you fall in love with Meyer’s complex world, read the sequel, Scarlet, just in time for the release of Cress, the third book in the series, on February 4th.

Girl Parts by John M. Cusick – Set in a world where concerned, but wealthy, parents can import robots from Japan to serve as friends and companions for their troubled teens, this book follows Rose, a robot imported for David, in the hopes that she will teach him about human interaction. But, when he is ultimately uninterested in her, she learns how to love another, possibly crossing the line between robot and human behavior.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong CoverNothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen (Author) & Faith Erin Hicks (Illustrator) – Slightly different from the rest of the books on this list, this graphic novel focuses on the members of a robotics team rather than having a robot as a main character. The book follows Charlie, a star athlete, who is caught in the middle of a feud between his friend Nate, who is president of the robotics club, and his ex-girlfriend, the captain of the cheerleaders. When the two groups must come together to win a robotics competition to fund their respective groups, Charlie is pulled along for the ride. This fun, humorous story explores the fault lines between social groups in high school and what it means to work as a team.

The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist – Alone on an island with three other girls and their guardians, Veronika only knows that her parents were killed in a plane crash and neither she nor any of the other girls can leave the island. When Veronika finds an unconscious girl washed up on the shore of the island, this mysterious girl’s reaction to Veronika and the other girls on the island slowly reveal to the reader that the girls are actually robots and that their strange upbringing is all an attempt to imbue them with human characteristics. The book hints at a larger world where people have grown suspicious of technology and will make you question how you think about technology’s role in society.

Expiration Day CoverExpiration Day by William Campbell Powell – And, now, one to look forward to! Told as the diary of Tania Deeley, this book takes place in a dystopian future where all but a lucky few humans are unable to have children. To fill the emotional void that this left in the rest of the populace – and more importantly to stop the social unrest that emerged as society broke down after this discovery – a company called Oxted offers android children for couples to raise as their own. Though everyone knows that the vast majority of children are actually robots, they are treated in every way like biological children – until their 18th birthdays when they are taken from their parents and returned to Oxted. Tania has seen the aftermath of these removals all her life as the daughter of a vicar in small town England, but she is nevertheless surprised to discover that she is herself an android. The story explores the line between human and robot, what it means to be creative and the way that society would react to a sudden influx of androids in their ranks. This book won’t be published until April, but it is one of the spring publications that I am most excited for and if you are fan of books about robots, it is definitely one that you will want to keep an eye out for in the spring.

Still looking for more great books with robots? Try The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, Revolution 19 by Gregg Rosenblum, or Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, all of which are books from my to-be-read list that feature robots. Am I missing any others? Let me know in the comments!

- Carli Spina, currently reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

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