For the centenary of the coining of the word ‘robot’, Jonathan Strahan has compiled an anthology of new work about those… beings? objects? creations? The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word for slave, so perhaps it’s appropriate that a description of what they are is hard to come by. Strahan begins by putting robots into an even greater lineage and ancestry than a hundred years, though, pointing out that the Greek god Hephaestus has golden assistants, and the many stories of golems, and coming up to Frankenstein’s creation too. He goes on to touch lightly on the myriad ways robot-like beings have influenced fiction more recently (tripods to chat bots). I don’t always read introductions (sorry J), but this one is well worth the time and really sets the scene for the entire anthology.
I won’t go over every story, because that would be a bit tedious. Basically every story was great, which pleased me immensely!
Vina Jie-Min Prasad starts off the anthology with “A Guide for Working Breeds,” written as a series of chats between two bots. One is required to be the mentor for the other, who is pretty new to the whole work-scene; the slight boredom and irritation of the first is set off against the enthusiasm of the newb and feels all too real. The entire narrative is in chat; Prasad works in enough detail that by the end of it I felt like I had read far more narrative than was actually on the page. Very nice.
On the other hand, Peter Watts’ “Test 4 Echo” is not nice. It’s a great story, but it’s not nice. It’s got solar exploration and an intriguing design for a robot on Enceladus, but the way that the robot is treated is not nice. It’s got discussion of developing robot sentience, but the way it works out is not nice. I really enjoyed it… but it’s not nice.
“The Hurt Pattern,” from Tochi Onyebuchi, is a terrifying look at a very near, very plausible future that is more about the humans than the robots, because it’s about how humans teach robots and what we can unconsciously impart, and how that can be manipulated and used for profit, or nefarious purpose. I found this story distressing, actually, because it’s so very believable: how algorithms can be used to affect society. Including law enforcement.
In-built obsolesce crops up a few times, and perhaps nowhere as poignantly as in John Chu’s “Dancing with Death” which features a robot that should be on its way out and a mechanic who is more than he seems and also a really, really good mechanic. This one really is beautiful.
Sofia Samatar contributes probably my favourite story, in “Fairy Tales for Robots.” Onyebuchi presented a nightmare scenario for what might happen with the way humans teach algorithms; Samatar presents someone trying to teach a ‘robot'(ish) to think for itself, to consider how stories might guide decisions and attitudes. The way Samatar takes fairytales and myths – some familiar to my Anglo-Australian upbringing, others not so – and demonstrates how they can be seen as relevant to an artificial life is just breathtaking, it’s so imaginative. I really, really loved this piece.
I am reminded, perhaps obviously, of Zombies vs Unicorns, the Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black anthology from several years ago. It’s the same sort of idea: which trope is better? Which sort of close-to-but-not-human species can authors have the most fun with, do most with, and so on? But more than zombies and unicorns, the authors in this anthology make powerful statements in their afterwords for why both robots and fairies can and do have such enduring power in our narratives. They are like us, but unlike. Robots are made by us; fairies live in parallel; both can be imagined to have legitimate grievances with humanity; both can potentially blend into humanity… and so on. Max Gladstone suggests robots are the future, and fairies are our roots.
So there’s a lot to explore in an anthology inviting authors to choose one of these archetypal features of our speculative fiction.
What surprised and amused me the most in this set of stories was the number of times authors decided to play with both. Seanan McGuire starts the ball rolling, and Catherynne M Valente finishes it; along the way, there are a couple of variations on Pinocchio that I didn’t always pick up – it’s not a significant story for me – as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and other ruminations on how robots and fairies might be seen to fade into one another, one way or another. I really, really liked this aspect.
In fact, I liked this anthology in general. The stories are generally very well written, and there’s a marvellous balance of fun and heart-wrenching or somewhat horrifying, as well as often having significant points to make about humanity and how we interact with our world. McGuire’s views on theme parks were great fun to read; Ken Liu’s story on automation was chilling and brilliantly written (unsurprisingly). Sarah Gailey also contributed a supremely chilling story that I really wasn’t prepared for, and Madeline Ashby’s was haunting and lovely, and Maria Dahvana Headley got me with a rocknroll and fairies story that was always going to push my buttons.
Themed anthologies can be a fraught business. This one gets it right.
I mean, it’s called All Systems Red, but everyone’s just calling it Murderbot.
Cleverly written, intriguing plot, and a narrator that I really, REALLY want to hear more from.
I had heard a lot about Murderbot before I read this. Remarkably, it actually lived up to the hype. Written almost like a diary, it allows the reader into the mind of a robot who has been tasked to look after some explorers – who don’t realise that their robotic servant has no control chip, and is therefore choosing to look after them rather than simply and blindly following instructions.
It’s a reflection on autonomy, and choice; on how we treat those in subservient positions, the uncanny valley,and identity. It is also a mighty fine story that kept me engrossed and makes me leap for joy when I know there’s at least another three in the series to come.
Tansy, Rivqa: I hear you have an exciting new project coming up. Care to share what it is?
Hi, Alex! We’re about to launch a crowdfunding campaign for a new speculative fiction anthology of artificial intelligence stories: Mother of Invention.
So tell me about this title. Who came up with it, what’s the point, and so on?
Artificial intelligence stories, from the very beginning, have always been dominated by the idea of a male creator ‘giving birth’ to robots or intelligent computers. This in turn means that we end up with a lot of artificial intelligence narratives with a sexy female robot, or a disembodied voice played by Scarlett Johanssen. Starting with Frankenstein (though even going back to the Ancient Greek Pygmalion/Galatea myth) the stories so often centre around the idea of what happens (or what goes terribly wrong) when men create life. Is Susan Calvin the only iconic female creator of artificial life in our whole genre? We’re happy to be ‘well, actually’d on this one, but she’s definitely outnumbered by her male counterparts.
To be honest, the ‘isolated dude builds/interacts with sexy robot girlfriend/daughter and/or angry robot/computer son who wants to kill him’ tropes have become the SF equivalent of ‘middle-aged college professor has affair with younger female student’. And just because (some) women can have babies biologically doesn’t mean they can’t build robots or super-smart imaginary friends as well as, or instead of, creating life the squishy old fashioned way.
We wanted to challenge the gender dynamic of artificial intelligence stories, and rather than focus on the ‘why are all robot women sexy and adorable’ trope, we thought we’d let some fantastic writers explore the idea of what kind of artificial lifeforms women, and other under-represented genders, might create.
As for the title… it took us ages to find something that captured what we want, but ultimately the quote ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ gave us the answer. When it comes to artificial intelligence stories, the motivation is often just as interesting as the ‘how it all went terribly wrong’ part, and we’re interested to see how the gender of the creator in these stories will affect what they build, and who they make.
The anthology will be published by Twelfth Planet Press… why go with them?
Twelfth Planet Press have a reputation for smart, thought-provoking projects and for challenging the gender dynamic of SF publishing, so they were absolutely our first choice. We’ve both worked with them before, though mostly at the fiction writing end of things, so it’s exciting to be getting our teeth into an editing project this time around.
We want to follow in the footsteps of Kaleidoscope and Defying Doomsday, which were both fantastic, diverse anthologies with strong political concepts behind them.
Do you have a stash of money up your collective sleeves to pay the authors for the project, or do you have some other plan?
Crowdfunding is our plan! With a project like this, a crowdfunding campaign has a lot of benefits to it, particularly that you can create advanced buzz for the book, and also gauge the interest of the readers. If we can’t make our target, then we don’t have enough interest to make the book viable, and it’s better to know that up front. The best thing about crowdfunding is that we are able to comfortably pay the authors (and editors and designers and artists and everyone) professional rates, which is often a hard ask for an Aussie small press budget.
Twelfth Planet Press has run a couple of very successful crowdfunding campaigns for anthologies like this one, and each time that has helped to bring international awareness to the book which is hugely important. We may be working out of the Australian suburbs, but we want to get this book into the hands of readers all around the world.
This will actually be the first time Twelfth Planet Press has worked with Kickstarter rather than the locally-based Pozible, so that’s an exciting adventure. It will be interesting to see whether it makes a difference to international reach.
Are there any authors associated with the project yet?
Yes, there are! We’ll also be opening for general submissions after crowdfunding closes, from July-August 2017.
Our core team of Mother of Invention authors are Seanan McGuire, John Chu, Kameron Hurley, Nisi Shawl, Sandra McDonald, E.C. Myers, Justina Robson, Bogi Takács, Rosaleen Love, Cat Sparks and Joanne Anderton. We also have an essay coming from Ambelin Kwaymullina, which we are very excited about.
Do you have dream plots or ideas you’d like to see reflected in your slush pile?
Tansy: I’m not gonna lie, I kind of want at least one super smart sexbot story and/or a gender-reversed Stepford Wives story. So many robot-as-person stories are about beauty and perfection and the unrealistic expectations on human/artificial female bodies, so I’d love something that turns that around to look at the potential sexuality/sensuality of artificial male bodies. I’d also love to see stories that look at how women socialise and connect to each other, and how intelligences that are created by women might reflect that. I’d definitely like a range of ages of the creators — a 96-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl are going to create a different intelligent software, presumably. What would you get if they worked together?
I also really want stories that challenge our premise, challenge the gender binary, and allow for a wide, inclusive definition of what gender means anyway. Artificial intelligence is a theme that invites a complex exploration of gender (or an absence of gender) beyond just the creator themselves, so it would be fantastic to get stories that do this.
Rivqa: While I’m sure we’ll be including some ‘AI turns evil’ stories, I’m personally more excited to see stories that explore our creators’ creations in more subtle ways. In particular, autonomy interests me as a writer and a parent. At what point do we let go of our children, whatever their nature? What does it mean to make an autonomous AI, whether purposefully or accidentally?
Like Tansy, I’m excited to see how our authors use the theme to explore gender identity and expression. Would a female, genderqueer or agender creator necessarily invent something different to a cis male creator? Or is that just playing into the kyriarchy’s hands in a different way? I can’t wait to see how our submissions subvert the tired old trope of the cis male inventor, because I have no doubt that they’ll do so in a multitude of ways.
At a simpler level, I’m just looking forward to reading stories from people who love robots as much as I do, because I think they’re awesome.
What’s the timeline for all of this?
It all starts in June 2017, just a few weeks from now! We’ll be crowdfunding for the whole month. We’ll then have our open submission period and be reading, selecting and editing for the rest of this year. We’ll be delivering crowdfunding rewards from early 2018, with the book itself delivering to supporters in June 2018.
We also have a stretch goal planned for a companion series of gender and artificial intelligence essays which would, if we reach the target, extend beyond the original timeline.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer, Hugo Award-winning podcaster and pop culture critic based in Tasmania. Her award-winning fiction includes the Creature Court trilogy and the Love & Romanpunk short story collection. Tansy has edited various magazines and books, most recently the Cranky Ladies of History anthology which was crowdfunded in 2014. She also regularly assesses manuscripts for the Tasmanian Writer’s Centre.
Rivqa Rafael is a writer and editor based in Sydney. Her speculative fiction has been published in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), Defying Doomsday, and elsewhere. In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. As an editor, she specialises in medical and science writing, both short and long form; she has also edited memoir, fiction and popular magazines.