Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO’s The Agenda multiple times. Her novels (vN and iD) are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
by Madeline Ashby
A while ago, someone asked me: “In a world full of vampires, were-creatures, angels, fae, and assorted other supernatural creatures, what made you choose robots (besides robots obviously being far superior)?”
Basically, I answered that the market was already saturated with stories about vampires and other supernatural creatures, especially by young female writers, and my contribution would likely go unnoticed. Second, I’ve never found vampires all that compelling as a story teller. I love consuming stories about them, but I don’t get much joy from creating stories about them. My ideal vampire story is about a vampire librarian, or a vampire museum curator, because that’s a really good job for immortal beings who can’t go outside. That, or some sort of IT job. Nobody wonders why you never seem to sleep; nobody questions how you get rid of annoying interns. Just use a SodaStream to funnel blood into another bottle of Code Red Mountain Dew, and you’re good to go.
…Now, does that sound exciting, to you? Does that sound dramatic? No. Of course it doesn’t. Because nobody wants to read about a vampire making a PowerPoint that explains how to boost CTR via social media widgets. People read books so they don’t have to think about that shit. But such are the extent of my vampire ideas. So, no vampires for me.
So, why robots instead? Sometimes I get asked if I was a big fan of Asimov (I wasn’t), or if I’ve watched A.I. (I haven’t). I agree with what William Gibson recently tweeted: “I think Asimov’s robots were his way of trying to better understand *people*. Which was perhaps not his greatest forte in life.” I think that just about nails it. They’re full of good ideas, those stories. But they were essentially locked-room mysteries. Problem sets. The robot does something wrong, and the roboticists have to untangle a programming knot. It’s about as exciting as, well, reading about somebody making a PowerPoint.
What interests me about robots isn’t their programming. Rather, it’s the idea of programming a person. And the idea of programming a person goes back as far as the Torah: in Genesis, God endows Adam with a choice rule, as in answer-set programming. Adam’s sin — the original sin that theologians credit with the lapse of all humanity — is to choose the wrong variable from the answer set. It is not, as Augustine of Hippo and other less literate Bible readers would have us believe, “knowing” Eve. Rather, Adam’s disobedience lies in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge; his betrayal lies in choosing faithfulness to his wife over faithfulness to his creator. Elaine Pagels explores this subject in detail in Adam, Eve, and The Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, but Milton already covered it in Book 9 ofParadise Lost:
However I with thee have fixt my Lot,
Certain to undergoe like doom, if Death
Consort with thee, Death is to mee as Life;
So forcible within my heart I feel [ 955 ]
The Bond of Nature draw me to my owne,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our State cannot be severd, we are one,
One Flesh; to loose thee were to loose my self.
I wish I could say I deliberately considered these things when I was starting the Machine Dynasty, my series of books about self-replicating humanoids developed by a Rapture-minded megachurch and sold to pay off class-action suits. But that would be a lie. That’s the nature of influence. It’s like a splinter. You don’t know how deep it’s worked its way into you until the time comes to pull it out. What I did know was that the relationships robots would have with humans would be ultimately far less interesting than the relationships they would have with each other — that while everyone had read a story about robots and humans, a story about robots and robots was a rarer and stranger thing.
The thing is, I’ve never been on the side of humanity in these books. It’s called the Machine Dynasty for a reason. I couldn’t care less about the humans in these novels. Most of them, anyway. There are some good ones, a few who buck the trend. But really, they’re vermin. We’ve read a lot of stories told by frightened humans insistent on proving how special they are, who believe in sentience and organic evolution and maybe even a god who gave them dominion over the earth and all the creatures who inhabit it. We’ve seen a lot of humans fighting hard to protect themselves from godless killing machines.
Let me tell you, the godless killing machines are a lot more fun. That’s why I picked them, and not some fucking fae. Because they know exactly who they are, and they don’t want to be anything else. They don’t want to be part of our world. They just want our world. And I have yet to find a compelling argument for why they shouldn’t win it.