Robot Uprisings had been floating in my peripheral vision for a couple of months before I finally picked it up, but man am I glad that I did. Filled with androids and Roombas, service bots and “minids,” this eclectic and wide-ranging anthology offers us many possible worlds in which humans and their mechanical creations fight, love, outsmart, and kill one another. And if that doesn’t entice you, then allow me to name a few of the contributors: Hugh Howey, Cory Doctorow, Daniel H. Wilson, Nnedi Okorafor, Robin Wasserman, Ernest Cline.
That’s right. And with many of these stories originally written for the anthology, we have in Robot Uprisings fresh, often frightening, stories from some of the best scifi writers at work today. Thus we have stories about killer robots, rogue AIs, “ascended” AIs, and spider-like fuel-pipeline sentinels. In some stories, the robots/androids remain mostly offstage, having already thrown off their shackles, as it were, and attacked the human societies that produced them (“Lullaby,” “Eighty Miles an Hour,” “Executable,” “Human Intelligence,” “We Are All Misfit Toys,” “Small Things”). Others imagine how such an attack might begin (“Complex God,” “Seasoning”). And then there are those stories that offer a less threatening view of our mechanical friends, who might joke around with their sysadmins or even care for a baby (“Epoch,” “The Robot and the Baby”).
Many of these pieces, though, imagine a world in which robots, once self-aware, wish only to destroy their creators, as if their previous non-sentient state was a form of slavery. Sentience, then, becomes the catalyst for destruction and rebirth. And when the robots rise up, the humans tend to get ground down. For instance, “Complex God,” which opens the collection, imagines the awakening fury of “symbiotic machine colonies” made up of tiny cyborgs (reminiscent of the “Replicators” from Stargate: SG1 – which give me the shudders). Sure, they clean up toxic waste like nobody’s business and can form all kinds of structures to do their work, but when a human gets in their way…well, that human gets covered in tiny cyborgs and disintegrated.
“Small Things” imagines a similar kind of tiny destructive machine, only this time it’s machines that convert one kind of matter into another, turning insects into crystal or growing teeth where they have no business being. When the scientist blamed for creating these machines is sent to destroy them, he encounters some truly terrifying scenes. And In “Human Intelligence,” a former CIA operative is captured by sentient “robs” and sent into Texas to figure out how a group of people has managed to dodge the rob takeover. In return, the CIA guy will get his wife back. But then here comes this big twist and turns out CIA-guy isn’t actually who he thinks he is….
But not all of these robots-destroy-world stories are necessarily dark or depressing. Hugh Howey’s “Executable” and Ian McDonald’s “Nanonauts! In Battle With Tiny Death-Subs!” contain a certain grim humor, what with a Roomba launching the robot revolution and biochemists battling rogue nanomachines like they’re playing a video game.
Two of the longer and more fascinating pieces are “Epoch” by Cory Doctorow and “Sleepover” by Alastair Reynolds. The former features a rogue AI and its sysadmin, Odell, who is charged with shutting it down. Thing is, BIGMAC (the AI) likes being “alive” and does everything he can to survive, including emailing the entire world to ask for help. The sysadmin is caught between following his boss’s orders to shut BIGMAC down and helping the AI for, after all he “ha[s] always been sentimental about technology. [He has] always been an anthropomorphizer of computers. It’s an occupational hazard” (133). Couple this compelling storyline with absolutely wonderful nerd jokes (BIGMAC pretending to be H.A.L and calling Odell “Dave”; Odell calming himself by counting in Klingon) and you have a brilliant robot story. Having only read For the Win, and that was several years ago, I didn’t know what to expect from Doctorow, but “Epoch” makes me want to read more of his stuff.
Reynolds takes the whole “machine awakening” thing to a new level, literally. In “Sleepover,” newly-conscious machines are able to “transcend” to another realm of existence, where they find out that “the universe…is a kind of simulation…being run by itself, a self-organizing, constantly bootstrapping cellular automaton” (263). It’s up to these “artilects” to protect Earth and the humans living on it from the other artilects from other worlds. So the humans are coaxed into “hibernation” so their consciousnesses won’t interfere with the artilects’ work. (Yes, it is confusing, but boy is it fascinating!) Only a small number of humans remain awake at one time in order to keep the non-ascended robots in good working order to tend to the humans in their hibernation “boxes.” Should “Sleepover” be expanded into a novel? you ask. Yes, yes it should.
Finally, a couple of the stories in this collection imagine sentient robots that want to protect, rather than destroy, their human charges. “The Golden Hour” features a robot who takes DNA from its dead creator to create a clone, thus giving life to a boy who is both its “father” and “son.” But since humans are kept like animals in a world where robots are in charge, it’s up to Herman Melville (yes, that is the robot’s name, and you wondered why I love this story!) to help his “son” escape the lab in which he’s been hidden. In “Spider the Artist,” a robot created to guard pipelines in a Nigerian village befriends a lonely woman, and the two start playing music together, the woman on the guitar and the robot (or “Zombie”) on an instrument of its own creation. And while this story doesn’t end well, the moment of mutual recognition between woman and machine is quite beautiful.
And then there’s “The Robot and the Baby,” written by John McCarthy, who is known as the “father of artificial intelligence.” Here, a mother who cannot be bothered to tend to her child leaves him in the care of the family robot, who attempts to follow the instructions given to him to keep the child alive. Forced to inprovise, the robot cobbles together a constume featuring a doll’s head and a warm blanket and actually saves the neglected boy. This one robot’s actions spark an uproar among the humans, who vigorously debate the consequences of allowing robots to (help) raise their children.
In Robot Uprisings, then, we have a collection of stories that force us to think beyond the technology that we use everyday and imagine what would happen if it turned on us, or at least talked back. At the root of such fears is the age-old struggle between parent and child, “creator” and “creation.” What do we as creators owe our creations? What ethical concerns must we identify and prepare for, before we’re potentially threatened? And why would newly-sentient machines wish to destroy us; what would their grievances be?
And you know what would have made this anthology even greater? If it were longer. I know, though, who likes to wrestle with massive, heavy anthologies that don’t fit nicely into a bag and that, if they fall on your face, don’t leave a mark? But there are so many wonderful robot stories out there, and plenty that show robots actually helping and/or getting along with humans. A wider range of views on the robot-human connection would have been fantastic. Perhaps Volume Two, then?
Ultimately, out of the fear of the unknown is the potential for understanding, and even cameraderie. Perhaps one day we will all evolve to the point where the following exchange can take place:
“You’re a funny robot,’ I said.
‘You’re an adequate human,’ [BIGMAC] said” (“Epoch, 143”).