Automaton Love


Sean Young’s tragic replicant was, along with the astonishing opening sequences, the best thing about Blade Runner. Her red-lipsticked neo-noir femme fatale had us all rolling our hair, shoulder-padding and pencil-skirted hobbling our way into the eighties.

Automaton love has long been a staple of the SF genre-most common is the robot fantasy female as in Phillip K Dick’s  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep through to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind -up Girl.

Do girls dream of automaton love too? Hell yes. Apart from the obvious, who wouldn’t love a man you can program to be romantic and sensitive? Plus you can co-ordinate diaries right into his brain so he will never forget birthdays, anniversaries or to take out the trash.

Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover is a classic in this genre, but more recently Matt Haig’s Echo Boy and Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter have dealt with the same issues- a girl, a robot, a society that just doesn’t understand.



Echo Boy begins with Audrey, a fifteen year old whose father is anti-robots or Echos, androids designed to look and behave exactly as humans. Audrey’s parents have been killed, murdered by their Echo, Alissa and Audrey’s voice, stilted and not very teenage girl-like (robotic, in fact), though reflecting her sadness didn’t completely work for me-somehow the sections written by Daniel, the Echo, were more compelling. She is taken in by her uncle Alex Castle, head of Castle industries who manufacture, among other things, androids. Uncle Alex has a creepy kid named Iago and a house staffed by Echos, one of whom tries to speak to Audrey. Cue conspiracy, struggle, realisation, escape. Daniel, the Echo, is tall. blond, super-human in his powers and also a robot. Audrey develops feelings for him (Haig avoids the obvious implications here-perhaps because YA–but you know, surely a teenage girl would at least WONDER?) and the conspiracy, not the romance is not the main focus of the story.

Haig’s writing is lucid and elegant in Echo Boy. Some parts feel over-explained in terms of  world-building and technology (plus repetition because of the two-voice structure) Audrey’s relationships with her mother, renegade father and a drugged-up granny are well explored and the pace is steady, building to a compelling resolution.



I liked Echo Boy but I LOVED The Mad Scientist’s Daughter for reasons I cannot fully explain. Cassandra Rose Clarke’s book is not YA but could easily be read as such. It follows the life of Caterina Novak, home-schooled daughter of two scientists, who falls in love with her android tutor. Echoes of The Time Traveller’s Wife and a slightly creepy age difference thing aside, what sets this apart is Clarke’s lyrical prose as she paints Cat’s life moving through adolescence and young adulthood. Finn, the automaton object of desire is always there for her, steadfastly rescuing her from loneliness, maths tests, acid trips and dull boyfriends alike. Clarke also tackles THE QUESTION (‘I am anatomically human in every way’-cue immature giggling) other stuff like procreation  {conveniently shitty ex-husband fathers Cat’s child) and the nature of humanity. There are  similarities between the two books- for example in Echo Boy, Daniel’s humanity is explained by a strand of hair from the hair of the dead son of a mad genius robot inventor lady, in TMSD Finn’s is explained by his superior programming-he was designed as a replacement for (you guessed it) a mad genius robot inventor lady’s son. This is interesting in itself (Is the Pygmalion trope unacceptable in reverse? Therefore ‘false’ motherhood the only reason for a woman to design a ‘perfect man’?) but I preferred Clarke’s ‘explanation’ of how androids may be deemed capable of love. Humanity, like gender (cf Judith Butler) is performative-if you act like a human  you deserve to be treated as one. Her writing, too is exceptionally good and I can’t wait to read her YA fantasy novels next.


In Marissa Meyer’s Cinder the love story is told from the automaton’s point of view-Cinder is 36.8% robot, a cyborg.

This book is completely silly but also brilliant fun-who wouldn’t adore a cyborg mechanic Cinderella with a mechanical foot and hand, a metal spine and half-computer brain? Add in a East Asian (New Beijing) setting, an evil Moon Queen, a prince, a ball and a pumpkin-coloured car,plus a droid with personality providing fairy godmother duties and you have a palpable hit on your hands. The writing is workmanlike, the plotting and world building competent and Cinder herself is a feisty, fiery disabled, heroine with engine oil all over her face.

Next up The Silver Metal Man (Tanith Lee) and The Wind-up Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi) and a Blade Runner rewatch. Automaton Love For Ever!


About g.r.del

reading, writing and the rest. @storyvilled on twitter.
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