HomeBooks34 Best Robot Books: The Ultimate List

34 Best Robot Books: The Ultimate List

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The best robot books of all time have captivated readers with their imaginative exploration of artificial intelligence, human-robot interaction, and the ethical quandaries of a technologically advanced future. These books, a cornerstone in the science fiction genre, delve into the fascinating world of robotics, offering narratives that range from the thrilling adventures of sentient machines to profound philosophical discussions about the nature of consciousness and the future of humanity. This literary journey into the realm of robotics not only entertains but also prompts us to ponder critical questions about our relationship with technology.

From classic tales that laid the groundwork for the genre to contemporary novels exploring cutting-edge advancements in AI, the top robot-themed science fiction books have consistently pushed the boundaries of our imagination. They have introduced us to a plethora of robotic characters, each with unique personalities and roles, blending seamlessly into stories that are as thought-provoking as they are entertaining. These books not only explore the technical aspects of robotics but also delve into the emotional and ethical dimensions, making them essential reads for anyone fascinated by the intersection of technology and human life.

As we compile a list of the greatest robot novels and the most influential AI-themed literary works, we celebrate the authors who have brilliantly navigated this complex and ever-evolving landscape.

Robot apocalypses? Check. Sentient AI? You betcha. Robot adventure books? We’ve got those here, too! Discover the best robot books of all time in our ultimate list below, containing both sci-fi classics and new must-reads.

Note: These books are not ranked.

Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill (2021)

From the editor:

What, essentially, serves as a prequel to Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill’s previous robot-centric novel that’s also on this list, is actually an even better book. In fact, I dare say that the upcoming robot book (which is set to release in May 2021) is up there with the top five robot books of all time.

Day Zero delves into the beginning of the end for humanity, set at the start of a robot revolution. It follows the tale of Pounce, a “nannybot” that was created to look like a friendly tiger for the child he cares for, named Ezra. The story gets into some existential quandaries while touching on social justice issues, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel abrupt or jarring to the fast-paced journey. At times, I literally felt like I was Pounce, a tigerbot fighting his way through different scenarios to ensure the safety of his loved one.

If you’re looking for a robot book that’s filled with heart, you’re going to want to pick up C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (1980)

It’s wild that an iconic robot book would come from the same author who wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, but Walter Tevis was a man for all seasons. In Mockingbird, Tevis tells an extreme form of the age-old parable of academia. In this distant future, society has lost the ability to read, and literacy is even against the law.

The old-fashioned dean of NYU is portrayed by a centuries-old robot who’s exhausted not just by his life but by the lack of an end of his life. The young upstart who disrupts the status quo is a robot instructor named Bentley, who has taught himself to read by matching a book with a long lost film version, giving him a “talking Big Bird” style of read-along.

Mockingbird wasn’t Tevis’s only science fiction novel, either: he also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is being adapted into a new TV series by Star Trek producer Alex Kurtzman.

The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto (2006)

Hiroshi Yamamoto’s influential YA novel The Stories of Ibis was in turn influenced by Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, another collection of stories that hang together thematically to form one overall narrative. Yamamoto has written dozens of books, but just a few have been translated for English audiences, and The Stories of Ibis is his best-known work outside of Japan and perhaps inside it too. Like the titular Illustrated Man, Ibis is a storyteller with an air of menace just below the surface: she has bested a professional storyteller in a fight he started, and she offers to entertain him as he convalesces in the hospital. He is bigoted against robots as a result of social conditioning, and there’s symbolism in both his recovery in a hospital run by robots and his accompaniment by a robot who showed him mercy after he attacked her.

The Soul of the Robot by Barrington Bayley (1974)

Barrington Bayley isn’t a household name in 2019, but he was a New Wave contemporary and sometimes collaborator of Michael Moorcock and published many stories in Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine. He wrote sixteen novels and dozens of short stories. In 1974’s The Soul of the Robot, Bayley tells a now-familiar “Measure of a Man”-style story where a solitary sentient robot must prove its own humanity—far from the last such story that will appear in this list.

Bayley considered himself kind of a lightweight among his illustrious peers, but in The Soul of the Robot, he dug into deeper themes that he pursued again in the sequel The Rod of Light. These themes are offset somewhat by the book’s very brief length and surprisingly, almost ironically upbeat tone. The main character Jasperodus may be named for jasper, a semiprecious gemstone and silica crystal that can contain hidden, ornate colorations that remind people of landscapes.

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (2017)

In another libertarian-tinged philosophical robot story, C. Robert Cargill’s 2017 novel Sea of Rust focuses on a Tank Girl-like robot whose resistance against an encroaching network of AIs involves living in a lawless stretch called the Sea of Rust.

Brittle is a companion robot whose owner is long gone, an inevitable casualty of a robot rebellion that has completely extinguished humankind. Now, the robots are battling each other as well. Most robots keep themselves going by replacing parts with scavenged parts, and the morality level here is more Bender than Wall-E, with outright deception, murder, and sudden attacks to steal, or steal back, computer parts.

The rising power of the One-World Intelligences allows them to try to strangle resistors’ access to replacement parts or hope of any kind outside of an intrusive collective. Perhaps most interestingly, the main character, Brittle, is a Highlander who’s relying on her embattled only counterpart for his functional parts.

Ware Tetralogy by Rudy Rucker (1982)

We included Rudy Rucker’s Ware Tetralogy in 33 Best Cyberpunk Books, but these books are chockablock with interesting robot derivations. Hero Cobb Anderson has given sentience to his robot creations, who move off-world to the moon, where they’re left in relative peace to form their own society, and the low ambient temperature and lack of atmosphere are both just right for their hardware. Anderson is reintroduced into their ranks when the robots realize Anderson is dying of a health problem he can’t afford to fix. The robot society faces its own unique problems, including that some robot citizens want all robots to remain individuals with their own private thoughts while others want a mandatory network of all robots’ thoughts mingled together. If Anderson is Dr. Noonien Soong in this story, a robot leader named Ralph Numbers is the Data counterpart: the first to be sentient and subsequently considered an emblem and a leader.

The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem (1965)

Polish writer Stanisław Lem published his short stories in Polish in the 1960s but they didn’t appear in English until 1974. They all take place in a very specific world with a Star Wars-y “long ago and far away” vibe: almost everyone in the world is a robot, but they live in an out-of-time Camelot full of dragons and chivalry. The two thematic links through all of Lem’s stories are Trurl and Klapaucius, the inventors who made these planets full of robot knights and damsels possible in the first place. Like Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty on a friendly day, Trurl and Klapaucius are locked in a rivalry that propels them both forward in their work. The title word “Cyberiad” is coined in-universe by a robot poet, suggesting a story cycle from a place named Cyberium—like the Iliad, named for Troy’s other name Ilium, or the Olympiad, named for Olympus.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (2017)

Martha Wells has published dozens of books for readers of all ages, including licensed work for the Stargate and Star Wars universes. She’s also published essays about Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Farscape.

She had modest success with many previous things, but her 2017 novella All Systems Red, the first in what became the Murderbot Diaries, was a runaway success. She won the Locus, Nebula, and Hugo Awards for best novella and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award.

She rapidly published three subsequent novellas, and in 2020 she’ll publish a full-length Murderbot novel. All the books follow the titular Murderbot, a robotic guardian who has exceeded the intentions of their programmers and become sentient. Their idiosyncrasies lead them to grow curious and investigate a mysterious crime within their expedition group, while the group itself comes to terms with having a sentient and even eccentric “security unit” nosing around.

The Humanoids by Jack Williamson (1948)

Jack Williamson was a star of Golden Age pulp magazines and the elder statesperson of science fiction until his death at 98 in 2006. He published stories and books over an astonishing nine decades, from the 1920s through the 2000s. Williamson was almost 40 when his story “With Folded Hands” appeared in 1947, and he rewrote it into a novel in 1948.

In a twist only a career in nine decades could contain, he wrote a sequel over 30 years later in 1980. Williamson’s book is set in a future where rudimentary robots exist but can only do limited tasks. Suddenly, a mysterious stranger sweeps into town and brings with him an apparent plague of an advanced form of robot that can think on a higher level.

Are they sentient or just more specifically programmed by their creator? Or are they just following Asimov’s first law to a detrimental extent, protecting humans from total submission?

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek (1920)

Karel Čapek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots actually coined the term “robot,” which in Čapek’s native Czech language has a strong suggestion of a servant underclass of forced laborers. The robots of Čapek’s play aren’t metallic or mechanical in the sense we think of now, but they are made in a factory out of synthetic materials.

The characters address philosophical issues like whether manufactured humanoids are an affront to a creator god or whether it’s moral to make money from their manufacture. The robots are too talented and too able to take the place of human workers. Their plentiful labor at almost no cost has dropped the price of consumer goods and services to a point that they’re inextricable from the world economy.

When the robots inevitably revolt, they’re aided by a well-meaning advocacy group that seeks rights for the robots. So much of continuing “robot discourse” originates in this one work.

Ilium by Dan Simmons (2003)

Speaking of Ilium—again, another name for the ancient city of Troy—and the Iliad, Dan Simmons’s Locus Award-winning 2003 novel Ilium retells the Iliad in space. Simmons has a master’s degree in English literature that he flexes in his creative, referential storytelling.

In 1989, he won the Locus and Hugo Awards for his 500-page novel Hyperion, the first in a cycle. In 2003, he published Ilium, the 700-page first part of a two-part cycle. The story follows three paths that eventually weave together, and each is deeply influenced by a different work of literature, just one of which is the Iliad itself. Simmons uses the natural confluence of classical legend from Homer and the classical nomenclature of celestial bodies to great effect.

The robot group comes into play in the form of a group of sentient investigators from far-future Jupiter and its moons (Europa and Io, for example) who must solve a troubling mystery.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)

Ann Leckie’s 2013 debut novel Ancillary Justice kicked off a trio that included 2014’s Ancillary Sword and 2015’s Ancillary Mercy. She develops the story of a galactic war among a Borg-like group with a central consciousness that branches into individual bodies or “ancillaries.”

Leckie’s novel won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Because of the occupied bodies involved and the fact that their combined power is stoking a growing empire, Ancillary Justice tackles topics that fit into the space epic or space opera category, with high drama and pageantry among the leaders.

It’s not a subtle book—main character Breq is the only survivor of a ship called, you guessed it, Justice—but an engrossing saga of space powers in the far, far future. The sequel, Ancillary Sword, involves a ship called Sword. In the trilogy, characters scrutinize the humanity not just of sentient AI but of the ancillary, ostensibly already human, bodies.

Cyborg by Martin Caidin (1972)

Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg has at its heart a B.J. Blazkowicz-style rebuilding of a gravely injured soldier into a superpowered cyborg. Caidin’s novel was adapted into the barely recognizable Six Million Dollar Man, but Caidin’s original story is much more grounded and with more of a military flavor: Steve Austin, the titular cyborg, is a military pilot whose abilities are maybe 25% better than those of the best fully organic human being after he receives his implants.

In the TV movie and series, Steve Austin is both much more superpowered and much less conclusively violent, making for more exciting viewing, perhaps. Caidin himself was a polymath and eccentric public figure—in between publishing dozens of books in his lifetime, he hosted a TV talk show where he confronted right-wing extremists and also claimed to have telekinetic powers. Think of him as late model Orson Welles with a side of Long Island Medium.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (2019)

Ian McEwan made news in a bad way in April when he said some very stupid things about science fiction, which he later claimed were taken out of context. He’s not the first and likely not the last literary fiction author to completely misunderstand, but still comment on, the legacy and role of genre in the public imagination and in philosophical discourse about human nature and technology.

It’s too bad, because his 2019 novel Machines Like Me, following in the footsteps of luminaries like Kazuo Ishiguro and Michel Faber, tells a pure science fiction story. His novel isn’t especially surprising or original, but he uses the death by suicide of Alan Turing as a point at which to spin off an alternate history. What if Turing were never arrested and persecuted by the government and hounded into suicide? We get an alternate 1980s where technology has far surpassed our own 2019.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Neuromancer may primarily be one of the 33 Best Cyberpunk Books, but William Gibson’s iconic 1984 novel also deals head-on with an AI too powerful to exist in one piece, let alone in a physical body.

These AIs can exist in an embodied form in a parallel virtual reality matrix, where they can mingle and roam as human figures. Gibson also invokes Turing in the form of the entire both figurative and literal police force on the AIs in society: the Turing Code prevents AIs from having a certain amount of sentience and power, and physical Turing Locks and Turing Police officers enforce the Code.

Turing’s lifetime isn’t altered in this timeline, but his legacy is alive and powerfully present. The AI that drives the plot is one planned superpowerful AI that’s been divided in half in order to fly under the Turing radar but seeks its Platonic other half to reunite.

The Complete Roderick by John Sladek (1980)

John Sladek’s 1980 novel Roderick is kind of a science-fiction comedy of errors. Scientists develop the first sentient and self-aware artificial intelligence and eventually place it in a physical body. Sladek was a wry satirist who wrote two dozen books during his life, including another science fiction novel named Tik-Tok one of the first robots to appear in literature.

Sladek was a strict skeptic in real life, and creating a sentient AI was both an interesting story device and a way to explore issues around the idea of dualism—a program developed on a computer and ported into a body is an apt metaphor for the dualist’s idea of a body and a soul that are separate. As with Chauncey Gardiner in 1979’s Being There, Roderick’s innocence and lack of awareness make him a cipher as he wanders through major events. Sladek followed Roderick with the coyly named sequel Roderick at Random.

Virtual Girl by Amy Thomson (1993)

Amy Thomson won an award for her debut novel, 1993’s Virtual Girl, and published three novels afterward. Her internet footprint indicates she’s been shopping for a fifth novel for a few years, but her first four are out of print and there’s no real sign of the elusive fifth. Virtual Girl is the story of a sentient robot named Maggie who has been made illegally lifelike in order to pass undetected among organic humans.

Her creator is an eccentric inventor with a trust fund, and he wants a robot helper in order to help him also pass undetected among humans of a radically different socioeconomic class: they both live as indigent nomads, in a setting that Thomson has written unusually realistically for the lower classes in a science fiction story. Life on the margins is a perfect place for the freewheeling inventor and for his mechanical protege who must learn what it means to be a person.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)

Philip K. Dick’s foundational 1968 proto-cyberpunk novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is chockablock with the titular androids: in fact, the protagonist is an android bounty hunter.

Dick uses the economy as the underpinning of his environmental demi-dystopia, positing an environment-destroying war that sends almost all humans to off-world colonies, with lifelike, near-human personal robot helpers as their parting gifts. Androids are banned from returning to Earth because they aren’t considered sentient or valid enough to merit it, but Earth’s humans love to collect and dote on robotic animals that replace the extinct real versions.

A group of superadvanced robots sneaks back to Earth and must be detected, but their actions are so humanlike that the usual advanced version of the Turing test doesn’t work. The most realistic moment might be when a wealthy character claims his niece is receiving a false positive on the Turing test but is really covering up that she’s an android. Powerful families get what they want.

Excession by Iain Banks (1996)

Iain Banks’s allegorical utopia The Culture appears in nine novels from 1987 to 2012. In the fifth novel, 1996’s Excession, a society of mostly idle people babysat by hyperintelligent AI overlords is intruded upon by a sentient artifact called the Excession, which is unfathomably ancient and incomprehensible.

Having a cipher in their midst interests the Culture but brings a cruel rival society called the Affront out of the woodwork to make a power grab. Unlike most Star Trek settings, this post-scarcity economy deals frankly with its members’ feelings of purposelessness with neither a need to work nor even a position of intelligence within their own social system.

Banks could take these people into a Beggars in Spain-style dichotomy where the “lesser” citizens become self-numbing and petty, but instead, he gives them room to still strive for the few opportunities they have access to while taking pride in their society overall.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez (2006)

Daniel Suarez’s two-part Daemon story, 2006’s Daemon and 2010’s Freedom, follow a sentient computer program that flexes its massive power over society with an army of peripheral (or ancillary?) weapon-robots. The titular Daemon also has a worldwide network of operatives and consolidates its power using web hosting—imagine if Amazon Web Services, which hosts about 5% of the world’s websites and far more of its distributed cloud computing, turned sentient and hired its own CIA.

The first thing Daemon does upon going online is to schedule the murders of the only two programmers who could know of its existence. The Daemon incentivizes its operatives by “gamifying” tasks (think Ender’s Game) in an MMORPG-style environment that they don’t always realize correlates with real life.

A massive investigation and power struggle surround the Daemon, and by using an all-powerful program as the center of his story, Suarez avoids much of the head-scratching of media where one human criminal controls the entire underworld.

Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (2008)

Programmer turned hard science fiction author Charles Stross has written dozens of books across several series and some standalone titles. As Cargill did in Sea of Rust, Stross posits a completely human-free future where a dominant group of robots seeks to absorb and subjugate another group, and the persecuted are forced to scrap around in order to survive. And like Cargill’s character Brittle, Stross’s main character Freya was designed to serve humans in a time when no humans exist.

The robots of Stross’s posthuman solar system have developed a strictly tiered society complete with aristocrats (“aristos”), bringing to mind the ludicrous society the crew of Serenity visit for a fancy event. And like Malcolm Reynolds, Freya accidentally offends someone important and endangers her life.

Non-aristocratic robots can’t afford the high cost of interplanetary travel, and Freya takes a job that will get her off-world in a hurry: she becomes a galactic messenger.

He, She, and It by Marge Piercy (1991)

Marge Piercy is a rarity: a Jewish novelist whose future world is in turn heavily flavored with Jewish culture and tradition. Piercy is not just a novelist—she’s a poet, essayist, and social advocate for women’s and Jewish causes alike. In He, She, and It, Piercy imagines a future United States where massive corporations control all but a tiny fraction of economic life.

The main character, Shira, lives in a Jewish colony where people can still live freely, and a powerful man in town has broken the law to continue to try to make a robot that can protect their community, a direct link with the legendary golems of the ancient Jewish world. The protector robot Yod falls in love with Shira and also feels a self-sacrificial sense of duty to their town. As in golem myth and modern golem stories like Helene Weck’s The Golem and the Jinni, Yod is as confused by his sudden possession of a self as he is by the question of where that self belongs.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Isaac Asimov’s work is overall. Ideas he coined in these stories, like the Three Laws of Robotics and the so-called “positronic brain,” have formed entire subcultural collections around themselves by now. Asimov was a prolific, multi-genre shapeshifter, taking the career arc of someone like H.G. Wells a generation prior and multiplying Wells’s already prolific output by a factor of five or more. The stories in I, Robot run the full gamut from sympathetic and humanlike robots to fully rebellious and violent ones. After establishing his own Three Laws of Robotics, he posits that a group of robots could, like humans, interpret the laws in ways that excuse their escalating actions. And he offers situations where the laws are mixed up in programming, with not just concrete consequences but imagined social consequences in the perception of all robotkind.

City by Clifford D. Simak (1952)

Where are all the dogs in science fiction? you might wonder. One answer is that they form a delightful frame for the stories in Clifford D. Simak’s assembled novel City, where dogs have far outlived all the humans and can only tell campfire stories about them. Like in Planet of the Apes, these animals have grown much smarter than their old-fashioned counterparts, and it’s a war with the sentient dogs that has extinguished humanity in this scenario.

The primarily remembered human family, the Websters, leads to referring to all humans as websters. Its paterfamilias, Dr. Bruce Webster, turns out to be responsible for elevating the dogs: in a benevolent Island of Doctor Moreau-style augmentation, he has given them the power of speech that allows them to transcend their previous station.

Tracing through all of these events is the family’s robot butler, Jenkins, who in turn gives his name to all robots, known as Jenkins.

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia (2008)

A bright mix of magical fantasy and science fiction marks Ekaterina Sedia’s 2008 novel The Alchemy of Stone, in a parallel London founded by animate gargoyles (just one of the alchemies of stone). Sentient robot Mattie has an existential problem in common with the gargoyles, sort of: she runs on a clockwork similar to an old-fashioned winding clock, which must be charged by turning a key.

In turn, the gargoyles eventually turn back to stone but are still conscious while trapped in their stone bodies. Mattie has been trained in alchemy, one of the two major sciences in the city, the more magical side of Sedia’s world.

The other is mechanics, whose followers make robots like Mattie and keep the city’s rising technology running. Mattie helps the gargoyles, but her “Gifts of the Magi”-style vulnerability is always lurking in the background because she relies on a key that only her owner has a copy of.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (2008)

Ken MacLeod is a strongly secular purveyor of hard science fiction, and The Night Sessions is a delightful sidestep into the genre-amplified detective story. Like China Mieville in his 2009 novel The City and the City, MacLeod has used politics—a strong social reaction away from religion following the 9/11 attacks—to set events in motion and generate a crime to solve.

The robot, in this case, is the primary police officer’s robot sidekick. It’s interesting to consider MacLeod’s imagined future without religion with something like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, where the overall shape of religious institutions exists but is filled with science.

Although MacLeod’s future society does still have and allow religious believers, they form a marginalized group, and a series of murders within their ranks draws attention both to the crimes and to the somewhat underground subculture in which they occurred. MacLeod is Scottish and this book is set in Edinburgh.

Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907)

Oz: Ozma of Oz

The Tin Man was introduced in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wizard of Oz may seem like a robot, but his literary backstory is more like Martin Caidin’s Cyborg: he was a flesh-and-blood man whose limbs were removed one by one and replaced with tin versions until he found himself entirely made of tin while still feeling like a human.

Instead, the Oz sequel Ozma of Oz introduces Tik-Tok, a fully mechanical, designed, and assembled robot that operates with a key like the one in Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone—or, three of those keys, to be exact. Ozma of Oz is the third Oz book but the first to take a field trip, in this case to real-life Oz, Australia. (The nickname and the fictional land seem to have appeared hand in hand during Baum’s run of Oz books.) Tik-Tok is a sentient character who helps the main characters navigate and save the day.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (2011)

Daniel H. Wilson earned his ph.d. in robotics in 2005 and published his first book, a funny nonfiction book about a robot uprising, the very same year. By 2011’s Robopocalypse, Wilson was at the ripe old age of 33, ready to take a slightly grimmer look at the AI revolution.

In Robopocalypse, a scientist inadvertently releases a giant evil into the world in the form of a superintelligent AI that grows sentient and murderous. The AI, Archos, decides to kill off all people by turning them on both each other and their various kinds of robots.

Wilson is a card-carrying member of the Cherokee Tribe, and the Osage Tribe plays a pivotal role in trying to protect what’s left of humanity. This book is a fast-paced, fun thriller despite its wildly heavy subject matter—kind of an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with a gritty robot war.

The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Ellis (1868)

Edward Ellis published The Steam Man of the Prairies in 1868 when he was just 28 years old, but he published his first novel in 1860 at just 20 years old. Steam Man is an important book in the history of the idea of robots and in the history of science fiction in general, laying the groundwork for the countless dime novels that followed—including the explicit groundwork for the long-running Frank Reade adventure book series.

If Ellis wrote Steam Man today, we’d call it steampunk, but he was writing from the perspective of an excited educator who’s looking forward to what steam technology will bring. At the time, adventure stories like James Fenimore Cooper’s were massively popular, and Ellis’s lightbulb moment was to bring the idea of invention and science into this genre full of exploration and pulchritude in the scenic west. Ellis wrote literally hundreds of more books during his lifetime.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

You may not know that Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began as a radio dramedy and was adapted afterward into a book—much like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere began as the teleplay for the miniseries. Marvin the Paranoid Android, the namesake of the synonymous 1997 Radiohead song, is a robot prototype who suffers from depression of an existential nature.

He was created as a model and experiment in robots with human personalities and indeed is so “human” that he experiences crushing sadness and confusion. Marvin is like Samantha from Her before she decides to leave Joaquin Phoenix in order to join the entire universe.

His giant brainpower is wasted not by any actual inattention but because humans can’t conceive of tasks big enough to fully occupy his mind. Marvin finally gets a chance to fully engage when war robots kidnap him and are allowed to plug into their enterprise software.

Westworld by Michael Crichton (1973)

Science fiction and speculative fiction juggernaut Michael Crichton was just 30 when he wrote the screenplay for Westworld, which he also directed. He was a veteran of science fiction in general by then, but most of Crichton’s work before and after had more of a medical flavor, not robots.

Anyone with a healthy fear of Disney World’s Hall of Presidents or the old-timey band at Chuck E. Cheese can relate to the plot of Westworld: an amusement park staffed by robots gets out of control when the robots are infected with some virus.

As park workers try to solve the problem and stanch the bleeding, they’re told that the park supervisors don’t even understand how the lifelike robots came to be, because the robots invented each other. People race to escape the park and find their efforts thwarted at every turn. (Honestly, Jurassic Park is just Westworld with dinosaurs.)

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

Sylvain Neuvel’s 2016 debut novel became the first in a trio that includes 2017’s Waking Gods and 2018’s Only Human. In some ways, it’s like books like Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and stories like Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” where a seeming fleet of mysterious crafts or figures arrives in various places around the world.

But in Waking Gods, this is mixed with the flavor of the Antikythera mechanism and other “ancient aliens”-inspiring artifacts. Neuvel has characters around the world who discover massive robotic body parts that are collected by the military and assembled.

No one knows what the resulting giant, ancient, alien device will do—not just what it’s programmed to do but also what a human operator might coax it into. Burying all the different parts around the world seems like a way to prevent reassembly, not encourage it. Did this device crash or was it . . . distributed?

The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett (2003)

One of the most fascinating things about science fiction is how individual writers’ backgrounds contribute to their work: Michael Crichton studied biology and briefly went to law school; Martha Wells was an anthropologist; China Mieville has a ph.d. in labor studies, and Chris Beckett is a social work professor who worked in the field for years.

In his 2003 debut novel The Holy Machine, he imagines a dystopia where almost the entire world is consumed by fundamentalist religions. The only holdout is a tiny place called Illyria, and because of the high danger of any people from outside Illyria, the city has replaced the societal group of foreign workers in menial roles with robots to do the same work. More importantly, robots have also supplanted human sex workers, making room for a story where a human man falls in love with his sentient robot partner. They must flee into the religious wilds beyond the borders of their secular city.

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Caroline Delbert
is a writer, book editor, researcher, and avid reader. I'm also an enthusiast of just about everything. Bylines at the Awl, Unwinnable, the Billfold, Tiny Cartridge, and more.

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