Androids in the Mirror: Synthetic People and the Question of Humanness


Synthetic People and the Question of HumannessScience fiction has always worked best as an active commentary on the human condition, exploring the bridge between science and civilization in faraway places and yet unreached futures. In the last hundred years, and especially the most recent decades, the Android as a science fiction trope exemplifies how ‘humanness’ can be achieved through artifice, and simultaneously comments on humanity’s prevalence for inhumane behavior. The Android teaches us about the intersection of technology and society, and it asks us to take a more critical look at the age-old question of “What makes a human human?” The genre has explored this topic since its inception from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even in this early stage posits that even an artificially created human can still be capable of the full range of emotions we attribute to “being human” in the traditional sense.

As the Industrial Revolution emerged and sped up technological progress, this idea was symbolized through the Automaton and the Robot, whose increased strength, reliability, and tirelessness made them compelling subjects to use in contrast (and conjunction) with ourselves. The Android, however, broke new ground as the least distinguishable artificial entity, where the differences between man and machine became nullified almost entirely.

Like most important fiction, the Android is an allegory for the disenfranchisement of the “Other”, something intimately linked to human history. Whether through slavery, exploitation, stigmatism, or oppression, human minority groups have been marginalized, alienated, and even systematically exterminated by an ignorant majority, always beginning with the stripping away of one group’s humanness. It’s very hard for the average person to commit atrocities against another, but if that Other has been adequately objectified, then not only is it possible, it’s also usually inevitable. The only preventative is to never question another’s humanness in the first place, to understand that the sum of features and flesh convalesces into a reflection of oneself, and to realize that the Other in the mirror is really just like you.

The Android is also a perfect representation of Freud’s unheimlich, as they are both at once familiar and disturbing, and indeed in Freud’s Uncanny essay Jentsch is quoted as saying, “one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton” (Freud). It’s this uncanniness that drives the human repulsion by the Android, but it’s their Otherness that creates opposition to them as a group. In this sense, androids become an uncanny people, a race of the unheimlich, and these pejorative qualities lead to their discrimination and enslavement.

There is undoubtedly an abundance of works from the genre to examine in this light, but I will be limiting my analysis for clarity’s sake to two distinct “models” of the Android: Blade Runner’s Replicants, and Aliens’ Bishop.

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In 1982, the public at large was introduced to Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, androids engineered as meticulously as any being found in nature. With Earth a hostile mash of overpopulated dystopia, Replicants were used as off-world slave labor to further the reach of human civilization, and the story begins with a rogue group of Replicants rebelling against their overseers and journeying back to Earth for fundamental answers about themselves. Already we see the Replicants as being much more than just machines, as they are described in the opening credits as being “superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them”. So before we ever see a Replicant, we are explicitly told that they are equal, if not better, than us. This is immediately contradicted by the fact that Replicants are used exclusively for off-world slave labor, implying that, while they might be fundamentally equal to their human creators, the Replicants are massively disenfranchised by them.

In the first scene, we watch the Replicant, Leon, being questioned by a Blade Runner. Leon appears a little dim witted, frustrated by the methodical test, and is easily identified as a common “grunt” kind of worker—basically, Leon is like millions of other skilled tradesman who’d rather be working than answering inane questions. When Leon kills the Blade Runner, it is easy to vilify him, but it is important to remember that he is a runaway slave under threat of death, and that he’s actually acting in self-defense (it is, after all, the Blade Runner’s job to kill Leon). Already we’re given a complicated view of the Replicant through Leon—he is a machine, but he is as human as anyone else, yet for simply existing on Earth he must be “retired”. But while Leon and the rest of the mutinous Replicants are compelling in their own right, it isn’t until we meet Rachael at the Tyrell Corporation that we gain a much more three dimensional view of the Android.

While it’s soon revealed that Rachael is a Replicant herself, as an audience we’re introduced to her as a “person” first, both in the casual wit and intelligence she uses to handle Deckard, and in Tyrell’s challenge to see the Blade Runner’s test “work on a person first”. Again, our preconceptions are being toyed with here, and Rachael’s assertive answers show her as a fully formed individual, not simply a nexus of preprogrammed routines. She makes her own judgments, and is astute enough to point out the ideological problem Deckard faces as a Blade Runner—that the possibility for killing a human always exists (which also inversely implies that a Replicant is close enough to a human being to create the possibility of a mistake).

But it’s during the last moments of Deckard’s interrogation of Rachael that her true ‘humanness’ shines through, ironically at the very moment she’s authenticated as a Replicant. She answers Deckard’s questions more uneasily, until we see a shot of her red reflective eyes that mimic the earlier owl’s, but it’s the look of fear and nervousness on her face that is key. She’s visibly uncomfortable about having the nature of her very being probed, and in this last instance she both knows that she is a Replicant (or at least finally has some semblance of confirmation) and simultaneously knows she is still “herself”. The artifice has been stripped away, but the woman that the artifice created is still a fully realized human being. Indeed, the very dependence on the Voight-Kampff test for authenticating a Replicant is a telling detail, and illustrates the ambiguity between man and Replicant.

The discovery that Rachael’s memories are implants is also central to the film, since it again implores us to look inward and examine the surety of our own memories. “If we cannot trust our memories or photos we have of ourselves, than how can we know who or what we truly are?” (Klein, 141). Existentially, it would be very hard to prove one’s own history to oneself without the surety of memories, and the idea that our memories can be falsified is disturbing because it strips us of the identity that was forged from the experiences within those memories. This is the crisis Rachael must come to terms with; that she is “real”, but that the person who she knew herself to be is not. In discovering this and fleeing the Tyrell Corporation, she joins the other Replicants who “live in fear”, both because she has found herself to be full of humanness and yet is inherently inhuman, and subsequently faces being hunted down by people like Deckard.

While Roy Batty is presented as a somewhat stereotypical villain for much of the film, his journey represents the will to resist objectification. Roy may be simplistic superficially, but he is filled with complexities. When he enters the cryogenics lab, for instance, he paraphrases from Blake’s America a Prophecy, “Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shores, burning with the fires of Orc”. Moving past the question of how Roy could have come into contact with Blake’s poem, this line of dialogue is essential to understanding Roy. He sees himself as the “Orc”, the rebel facing off against tyranny, and based on the poem it seems he’s advocating a rebellion against at least Tyrell, if not anti-Replicantism in its entirety. He’s been enslaved for all of his existence, knows he’s more of a person than his assigned slave role, and after so much oppression he wants to strike back at the company, and indeed the one man responsible.

Roy wants “more life”, but the status quo says he does not deserve any, implying the lesser state of the Replicants. During the climatic battle between Batty and Deckard, however, this assertion is obliterated when Batty saves Deckard from a fall to his death, “Batty had exhibited empathy towards another living creature, becoming more human than those who pursued him” (Klein, 142). This is the fruition of Tyrell’s motto, “More Human Than Human”, where the artificially created person supplants the organic one in empathetic scope. Here Roy lets go of the anger that’s fueled him so far, and to use a stale but appropriate aphorism, he becomes “the bigger person” before once again waxing poetic with his famous “tears in rain” soliloquy (amazingly written the night before shooting the scene by Hauer himself).

This empathetic bond we build with the Replicants through the film reaches an apex in the last shot (referring here to the Final Cut), where we’re asked to make a judgment call about Deckard’s own humanness through the image of a metallic unicorn that mimics an early dream sequence. Have his own memories been falsified, and has Gaff known all along? Whether Deckard is or isn’t a Replicant doesn’t matter so much as the quandary itself being presented. Does Deckard having been a Replicant really change anything? Hasn’t he grown as a person, artificial or otherwise? This is core of the story, and begs the question, if we can’t tell the difference, what is the difference? Whether human or Replicant, doesn’t each deserve the right to life and liberty, regardless of origin?

The other version of the Android I want to focus on comes a few years later, in James Cameron’s Aliens. Bishop represents a more Asimovian automaton, less refined in design than the Replicants, but no less compelling in his humanness. He cannot do a human harm, or allow a human to be harmed, and seems most interested in carrying out benevolence towards humans as best he can. His role within the film depends on the supposition of our familiarity with the first film in the franchise, where the android Science Officer Ash malfunctions and nearly murders a few crewmen. Both Ripley and the audience presume Bishop to fulfill this role in Aliens, expecting him to “HAL-out” at some point in the film.

Bishop, however, is a stand-up person, exemplifying loyalty and perfect utility, especially to Ripley who is the most ill at ease about his presence. He is explicitly nonviolent, excels at being a medic and executive officer, and is sociable and highly empathetic—even towards the virulent xenomorph “Face-Hugger” specimen, which he refers to as “magnificent”. This is a man who is fueled by a curiosity towards life and a sense of duty not only to his crew, but also to any human that might benefit from his help. Our assumptive stereotyping about him is proven dead wrong at every turn, and Bishop not only maintains his peaceable state through the film, but also becomes instrumental in saving the characters from harm.

Bishop is also introduced to us in the same way Rachael—he’s shown first as a person, and revealed to be a machine later. Again, this allows for us to see him as a fully realized character through his words and actions, and to assume that he is a human. If we knew him to be an android first, we might scrutinize his every act as being a preprogrammed one, but in showing us Bishop as just another member of the crew first, emphasis is placed on his similarity to a human. And indeed, during the moment Burke apologizes for not informing Ripley of an android’s presence aboard, Bishop says, “I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ myself”, implying both a sense of personhood or humanness, and the feeling of being wounded by being referred to as a lesser—a “synthetic”. He is “shocked” to learn about Ash’s malfunction on the Nostromo, illustrating just how foreign the idea of hurting a human is to his mind, and his capability for higher cognitive processes.

His empathy and adamancy about helping his human counterparts never wavers throughout the film. Bishop doesn’t care what kind of person in need justifies assistance, and helps soldier, civilian, corporate envoy, and child alike. When Gorman is injured by a xenomorph sting, Bishop isolates the offending toxin and sets him towards recovery. When Burke asks that the xenomorph “Face-Hugger” specimens be kept alive in stasis, Bishop does so not because of his programming, but because he is helping a human, despite Burke or the Company’s motivations. He volunteers to crawl through the tiny maintenance tunnel to remote pilot a ship down to LV-426, and while he is perhaps more expendable because of his synthetic nature, he vocalizes, “Believe me, I’d prefer not to. I may by synthetic, but I’m not stupid”, and then still refuses a gun before sealing himself in. He rescues Ripley, Hicks, and Newt from thermonuclear annihilation, and even after being ripped in half during Ripley’s fight with the Queen, he still manages to save Newt from being sucked out of the airlock (an almost certain inevitability of Ripley’s recklessness during the fight had he not been there). In all cases, Bishop proves himself to be equal if not superior to his human counterparts, acting “More Human Than Human” at every turn.

In both films, the Android is used to illustrate the transience of humanness, and each android model explores ideals central to the human condition: the right to life and liberty in Blade Runner, and loyalty and benevolence in Aliens. We meet them first as individuals, and eventually the trappings of their artificiality are deemed insignificant in the face of their greater emotive achievements, proving the Android can be capable of its own desires and objections beyond any implicit programming. Their actions are as varied as that of a human’s, and illustrate the lack of a line between man and his synthetic counterpart. Moreover, they prove that ‘humanness’ is not limited to humans, but instead is a transcendent quality that should be applied to those who have reached a level of self-awareness comparable to a human, depending less on their genetic makeup, and more on their strength of character and degree of resolve.


Works Cited

Aliens (Alien Quadrilogy Edition). Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Lance

Henriksen, Michael Beihn. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD

Blade Runner (The Final Cut). Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean

Young. Warner Home Video, 2007. DVD.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”. Eastern Michigan University. Web. 8/26/13.

Klein, Michael J. “Beholding the Uncanny: Replicants, Cyborgs and Clones in SF.”

Humanity in Cybernetic Environments. Ed. Daniel Riha. Oxford, United Kingdom: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009. 137-145. Web.


2 Responses to Androids in the Mirror: Synthetic People and the Question of Humanness

  1. Tommy Coughlin

    Interesting and thought provoking essay Timothy Merritt. I think you may have missed the point in blade runner that Deckhard is a replicant too. That is sort of petty, I apologize. The more interesting avenue for consideration here is Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley when she was 17. (19)? The monster deals with the same types of situations as the replicants discussed but from the perspective of a teenager of an earlier century. Her representation of “the monster” is much more akin to Bishop in “Aliens”. All three works cited leave to ask just who or what are the aliens here.

    24 Jul 2015 - Reply
    • Timothy Merritt

      Thanks for your comment, Tommy. I actually address the issue of Deckard being a Replicant in the essay:

      Whether Deckard is or isn’t a Replicant doesn’t matter so much as the quandary itself being presented. Does Deckard having been a Replicant really change anything? Hasn’t he grown as a person, artificial or otherwise? This is core of the story, and begs the question, if we can’t tell the difference, what is the difference? Whether human or Replicant, doesn’t each deserve the right to life and liberty, regardless of origin?

      While (in the film version) Deckard is strongly alluded to be a Replicant in the film, the question of “Is he or isn’t he” being left unanswered, I feel, is more satisfying that a definite “yes” or “no”. The ambiguity of his humanity is what makes the story so interesting, and also so open to interpretation.

      I agree too that Frankenstein is an important addition to this conversation. I simply didn’t have enough room in my essay (this was a college paper) to address it. But as Mary Shelley is often hailed as the creator of science-fiction due to the very themes you bring up in her work, Frankenstein’s monster is certainly a worthy character of study within this critical analysis.

      Thanks for posting, and I hope you enjoyed my work.

      21 Aug 2015 - Reply

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