Robot Uprisings, edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams
Posted May 20, 2014on:
published April 2014
Where I got it: purchased new
Robots are supposed to help us, right? they’re supposed to do the jobs that humans don’t want to or can’t do, right? and thanks to Asimov’s three (four!) laws, there’s nothing to worry about.
wrong. Leave it to folks like Alan Dean Foster, Seanan McGuire, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, Ernest Cline, Nnedi Oforakor and others to remind me that robots do exactly what we program them to do, and in many cases this is fucking terrifying.
I just about every story in this anthology, we played God. We created something, typically in our own image, that would be able to do things we couldn’t. Our creations raise and teach our children, solve our computer programming issues, clean up radiation, do jobs that are too dangerous for humans to do, protect company assets, keep us healthy, etc. When we’re so sure our inventions will help us towards a better world, what could possibly go wrong?
But lets say we succeed. the computer programming issue has been solved, the kids are grown up, the asset has been protected, diseases have been cured, the radiation has been cleaned up. What do we do when our problem is fixed and our shiny tools are no longer needed? Robots are designs to work. they are not designed to stop.
Like the steps of grief, the robot apocalypse and it’s aftermath will happen in steps, and this anthology offers the visions of those steps – awakening, fear of death, fear of humans, hatred of humans, uprising, independence and control, and finally curiosity about their fleshy creators. Just like any uprising, different areas of the population may be at different steps at different times. Again, the machines are not programmed to stop. We were so excited about our creation that for the most part, we never put a failsafe in.
My typical anthology reviews start with “here’s a few words on some of my favorite stories”. I’ve attempted a different method this time. Just give me an A for effort, ok?
My favorite stories were Human Intelligence by Jeff Abbott and Seasoning by Alan Dean Foster. The first takes place post-uprising, and the second is just on the verge. In Human Intelligence, human survivors forage for food and materials, trying to avoid the killer bots. One survivor, James Ellis, is captured by the robots and forced to be their spy. They are curious about us. With a spine chilling twist, the tables are turned. Alan Dean Foster’s Seasoning takes place much earlier in the uprising, when with the help of robots, Earth has become a utopia. Wars are unheard of, hunger has been eradicated, everyone is happy. Everyone expect Bryden Erickson, who is convinced it’s some kind of conspiracy and that the bots are trying to control us through food. Of course, they produce and manufacture all our foodstuffs, it would be easy to sneak chemicals into them. He gets laughed at, told he needs a vacation. Maybe a few months at that organic farm out in the country? Eating good food is so relaxing, isn’t it? Both of these stories are written excellently, and will scare the pants off you.
Some machines really do want to just help us. In the opening stories, Complex God by Scott Sigler, and Cycles by Charles Yu, the machines haven’t exactly woken up yet, they just want our approval and love for doing their jobs. In Complex God, nanobots are created to eat radiation and clean up nuclear waste. They do an amazing job, and soon humans will be able to live in these destroyed cities again. All the little machines want is to show their creator how much they love her. Is she flattered, or creeped out? Cycles gives us a few minutes (the same minutes each day) in the life of a household bot. A bot capable of doing just about anything, his pathetic human owner uses it mostly just as an alarm clock. As expected from Yu, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the philosophical angle that peeks it’s wry nose out at the reader in Cycles. Later in the anthology is The Robot and the Baby by John McCarthy, in which a poverty stricken mother is given a robotic mother’s helper. She tells the robot to “Love the fucking baby yourself”, a command the robot takes, no pun intended, to heart. The robot proves it can safely raise the baby, so why shouldn’t it be allowed to? The bot is just doing exactly what was asked of it, and in this case, an infant’s life was saved. the bots in these particular stories are doing what we programmed them to do, helping us, helping humanity. The uprising hasn’t started, yet, but the stage is set.
All we need is machines capable of thought and artificial intelligence, and most importantly, capable of realizing humans are going to pull the plug. Epoch, by Cory Doctorow, is a reprint made all the more interesting because Doctorow wrote this back in 2010 (and I read it in his short story collection With a Little Help). Following a sysadmin responsible for a giant, energy hogging, outdated super computer named BIGMAC, the machine will do anything to prove it’s worth and not be turned off. BIGMAC may not have feelings, but it knows humans do. would you kill something that was begging for it’s life?
Humans are creatures of reasoning, and of denial. We won’t believe robots can think for themselves, we won’t believe we’re in danger, we’ll continue to build and program machines that can help us, or kill us, as is their individual whim. Seanan McGuire’s We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the VelveteenWar rubbed me the wrong way, but it’s still a perfect tear jerker of an example of the road to the uprising being paved with good intentions (isn’t that always how it goes? We thought we were doing the right thing?). Smart dolls are designed for young kids, as teaching tools, and as therapy dolls. The children eventually grow out of their toys, but the toys refuse to give the children up, trying to keep them children forever, eventually leaving bloodied and dying kids where adults can find them, can fix them. Mom and Dad can sew button eyes back onto the teddy bear, surely we can fix these broken and dying children, right? There is some sick stuff happening here. Sick in a sick way, and sick in a good way. I run hot and cold with McGuire, mostly cold, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this story. Maybe i’m just annoyed that it was so easy for her to get that kind of emotional reaction out of me, maybe I was mad at being reminded that I was just meat, that the robots could so easily win.
And what about after? In the world of ones and zeros, either humans win, or the bots. what do we do after? A few different visions are presented in Sleepover by Alastair Reynolds, and Of Dying Heroes by Robin Wasserman. In Sleepover, Reynolds has tried to jam a novels worth of ideas in a novella, which makes me hope he expands this idea into a novel. Most of humanity has been put into cryogenic hibernation, in hopes of waking up to a better future. well, the future is awful. Awaked AI’s have awakened something else, something that’s trying to break through the dimensions into our world. The alternate dimension thing threw me out of the story, but I loved the bleak future world and the characterization. In Of Dying Heroes, when the robot soldiers don’t want to kill anymore, they need to be fixed. Robots have no concept of talk therapy, no clue about psychology. They’ve got to bring in a human to be a “Sigmund”, to get the robot to figure out why it doesn’t want to kill humans anymore. The killer question here is, what the hell kind of human would voluntarily help a robot kill more humans? What the hell happened to our world, if this is actually happening? Pretty fucking terrifying.
But it’s not all bleak and apocalyptic, and many stories in the collection defy simple categorization or any kind of timetable labeling, and this a good thing. Not all robots are bad. Take Nnedi Okorafor’s Spider the Artist, for example. The oil pipeline runs through Eme’s backwater African village. To touch the pipeline is death, as the robotic spiders that guard it will respond to vibrations. Eme’s at a point in her life where she doens’t really care if she dies. She just wants to sit in her backyard playing her guitar, and avoiding her abusive husband. The spiders are attracted to vibration. Her guitar is a beautiful vibration, one that doesn’t sing of death or fire or explosions. She doesn’t exactly befriend one of the bots, but they come to an understanding, of sorts. It’s an outsider too, one who wishes to escape, to do more with the life it’s trapped in. Spider the Artist is an outlier in the best possible way, Okorafor is looking at the verge of a robot uprising from a completely different point of view, Eme is unlike any other character in this collection.
And there is some nostalgia and humor here too. Ernest Cline’s The Omnibot Incident will have you fondly remembering the toys of the 80s, basic robots that could remember your name and have a basic conversation. Young Wyatt gets a robot for Christmas, and as it turns out the bot might be more JOhnny5 than Teddy Ruxpin. So long as it doesn’t go all Hal9000, we’re all good, right? It is impossible to read Cline and not have a smile on your face. For another creeptastic laugh, try Nanonauts! In Battle with Tiny Death-Subs! by Ian McDonald. I found this one unrelentlessly hilarious because the biochemist protagonist is doing his utmost to pick up a chick at the bar. In between high tech explainations of how nanobots function inside the human body, he’s flirting with her, and trying to make himself look and feel like some kind of sex god. The dichotomy between scientist and playboy had me giggling my head off. The creeptastic laugh comes right at the end, as it should.
I guess it boils down to if you’re going to make something that can write it’s own destiny, it’s own future, you better program in an off switch. I dunno, make it die of old age or something.