Frankenstein’s movie monster was immolated by raging peasants. "Blade Runner’s" replicants were shot by Harrison Ford. The android hero of a new non fiction book simply vanishes in the most mundane possible way.
Who thought up the first Android? Maybe that prize goes to Frankenstein’s young creator Mary Shelley, almost 200 years ago. When did the term for a man-made human-like creature first appear? It seems to have originated somewhere in the 1930s science fiction of guys like Jack WiIliamson, Murray Leinster, and Edmond Hamilton.
By the 1950s, all us sci-fi buffs knew the difference between a robot and an android. Robots were mechanical men. Androids were replicas of men and women. Robots clanked when they walked, but the Andys could be sexy and even seductive — and treacherous … Because they could and often did deceive you into thinking they were human. And this possibility sparked many a lurid sci-fi covers from the years of “Spicy Science” magazine to this day, when the name "android"’ has become so diluted in the corporate cyber aquifer that it can mean nothing more sinister than a high-end smart-phone.
Meanwhile, along came Philip K. Dick, who wrote a book he called "Do Androids Dream?," published as "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," a book I edited along with two other Dick hardbacks. Dick had touched on the android concept a few times in his previous 22 novels, particularly an early
paperback called "The Simulacra." But in all of his books, the central concept was the matter of how we know what is real and what is not. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" presents the possibility that artificial, unreal life can be more real than the real thing. The book was transformed, rather than made into, a great cult film called 'Blade Runner." It set the standard for the who-is-really-human android story for all time.
The film was released in 1982, weeks after Dick died, and helped make him what he is now — perhaps the most influential and talked-about of all sci-fi writers.
Which was probably why around ten years ago, when a handful of young cybertypes from Texas and Tennessee decided to create one of the world’s first real life androids, they chose Phil for the model. Now, Australian David Dufty has written a bright little book on the project called "How to Build an Android." Of all the many strange books about Phil Dick that have appeared since his death, it is perhaps the strangest.
It’s the true story of an artistically trained roboticist and Phil Dick fan from Texas named David Hanson — who with University of Memphis scientists Art Graesser, Andrew Oley, and an increasing circle of others, built a “replicant” of the late writer and took him on the road to venues as various as the annual Artificial Intelligence convention and San Diego’s Comic Con.
It’s a well-told story, complete with an absurdly sad conclusion, when the replica head of Phil, the fruit of thousands of hours of research, engineering, and construction, vanishes from an airliner’s luggage compartment.
The grand project deflates, and its participants go their several ways. But a huge step in the creation of humanoid cyberlife has been accomplished, and Dufty tells us very well just what it takes to get modern technology to bring life to a favorite and feared human vision of long ago.
(In our audio segment, after Marc review's David Dufty's "How to Build an Android," John and Marc talk about Marc's experience editing Philip K. Dick.)