“Robot Uprisings” ed. John Joseph Adams and Daniel H. Wilson – A Review

robot uprisings

This review was originally published (in a shorter form) in issue #253 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop. My companion interview with editor of Robot Uprisings, John Joseph Adams, can be read here.

Robots are the future. Or, more accurately, the present. As far as science-fiction goes, as co-editor of “Robot Uprisings” John Joseph Adams says, it goes back to the genre’s origins. Robots, and their potentially ill-will towards us, have been with us for years, into a modern day reality where we have machines for all of life’s daily tasks. Including, worryingly, making war.

Appropriate, then, that this collection of seventeen stories of various robopocalyses, opens with a quote from Barrack Obama.

And this sense of closeness in time gives a not-particularly-new idea fresh life. The authors do the same. If this is a well-trodden path, this is an experienced troop of sherpas to lead the way. Seventeen writers, with seventeen tales of humanity daring to dream of godhood.

  • Opening the anthology, “Complex God” by Scott Sigler, puts an apocalypse on top of an apocalypse. Which I’m sure is some kind of contradiction, but as the premise for a story it works rather well. The nanorobots designed by an arrogant scientist to clear up after a nuclear war start…misbehaving. This is one of those ‘arrogance of man’ stories, but mixed up with the individual arrogance of one woman. It doesn’t push the boundaries too far, but as the opening story it sets the scene nicely.
  • Charles Yu’s “Cycles” is a bit more out there. From the perspective of a household robot who is essentially an alarm clock. It has bite from some excellent writing, and the narrator’s disdain mixed with pathos-tinged sympathy. It is curiously human, being trapped between hatred and compassion, and seeing ourselves through an outsider perspective is, as always, sobering. But what sticks in the mind more is the idea that if and when we create artificial intelligence, might it not inherit all of the same contradictions and personal flaws as ourselves?
  • One thing that does strike me reading an anthology like this, which is unified by a common subject, is that the actual styles of the stories vary greatly. Take, for example, “Lullaby” by Anna North, which I would place more in the young adult category. And that is absolutely not a criticism; this story of a young girl and her family moving into their grandfather’s old house — only to find the robots that he created and that killed him are still in the house — mixes the anthology theme with traditional ‘teenaged’ issues.
  • It’s been a while since I read a Genevieve Valentine story, but her offering here, “Eighty Miles an Hour All the Way to Paradise”, is a brilliant story. In the aftermath of an uprising, which has literally affected everything with a computer in it, a pair of survivors make their way to a maybe-haven for humans. There is hope here, mixed up with ideas that maybe the robotic horde isn’t so implacable as we have suspected, and a little human decency might go beyond simply the human.
  • “Executable” by Hugh Howey didn’t shine quite as brightly for me, but to be fair it had a difficult act to follow. One of the creators of AI is put on trial in the remains of human society, and recounts how a Roomba led to the end of the world. It is well enough written, and has a certain quirky charm. It would have been better, though, without the titular pun being the conclusion of the story.
  • “The Omnibot Incident” by Ernest Cline was a very odd one. For one thing, I wouldn’t have said it strictly qualified as a robot ‘uprising’ story. That said, it is a welcome addition here. A young boy in the 80s receives a robot for Christmas which seems a little more than a programmable automaton. It offers something different, a little bit of lightness to contrast with the grim.
  • Confession time: before I received this anthology to review I had never read a Cory Doctorow story. Now, thanks to “Epoch”, that is no longer true.  Again, it was a story without an apocalypse (a rarity here), but instead is one where AI has happened, and humanity grown bored with it. A lone analyst serves as caretaker of the solitary AI, but when budget cuts bite the AI fights back against its proposed deletion. It’s a moving story, but also a different kind of chilling, as a twisty story pits manipulations against manipulations until it is hard to judge what is true and who the good guys are. This was a gem of a story, and one of my favourite in the collection.
  • Jeff Abbott’s “Human Intelligence” was the first of these stories which really felt like it was inspired by the Terminator films. Not a negative against the story, but certainly a surprise that I haven’t seen more of such a culturally significant film series. Here, a former CIA operative is forced by the machine collective to help stamp out the last pocket of human resistance. It is a story of shifting loyalties and changing realities, well written and with particularly strong characterisation.
  • “The Golden Hour” by Julliana Baggott was a particularly powerful story. Told from the perspective of a human — probably the last “free” human — in a robot-ruled society. Hidden away and raised in secret by a sympathetic robot, the narrator’s very world is defined by those robots who have cared for him. The shift in premise from during an uprising, to after an (apparently) successful conquest is chilling, and there are a lot of very dark shadows subtly cast by this story.
  • Alastair Reynolds, in “Sleepover”, is the first to start playing with ideas of adjacent dimensions — as if revolutionary robots weren’t enough. Reynolds takes the reader to a future world where all but a handful of humanity are in cryostasis, as a war is fought between artificial intelligences in an over-dimension. It’s a fairly trippy story, mixing in sea monsters and a pretty unsympathetic central character, but it makes for absolutely compulsive reading.
  • In “Seasoning” by Alan Dean Foster, we have a full-on conspiracy story. Are machines manipulating humanity through additives in food? Is it possible to lead a life untouched by technology? Is the robotic meddling a good thing or  not? The narrator comes across as paranoid, certainly, but just because you’re paranoid… Quietly radical, this story has more than enough real-world parallels to make you look at your dinner and wonder.
  • “Nanonauts! In Battle with Tiny Death Subs!” by Ian McDonald was all the pulp-ish crazy that the title suggests. An off-duty ‘nanonaut’ regales a potential one night stand with fanciful tales of his job piloting nanomachines inside the bodies of the rich and powerful to fend off microscopic hostile robots. The fantastical blends with the believable until one is indisinguishable from t’other. The mysteriously creepy ending crowns what is a fun and imaginative story with an abruptly serious note.
  • What do we do with a broken robot, asks Robin Wasserman in “Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds”. The answer, apparently, is counselling, by a human psychiatrist. There is something darkly tragic, when the pathology in question is no longer wanting to kill humans and in the conversation between the two there are some fascination explorations of human nature and power balances. But, to be honest, there is only one ending and it is coming from miles off.
  • In something of a different tack “The Robot and the Baby” by John McCarthy takes an impassive narration approach, which is something that I think can be devastatingly effective when properly employed. And here it is; a robot has a crisis of programming when ordered by a neglectful mother to “love” her baby for her. The resultant exploration of what constitutes love, and on a grander scale the impact it has on society. This is the sort of social-nerdery which I get off on, but is probably not to everyone’s tastes.
  • Seanan McGuire’s flowery-named “We are all Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War” takes the idea of AI back to the same child-care angle as “The Robot and the Baby”, but takes it to much darker conclusions. Intelligent toys kidnap children on mass, and the resultant war proves unwinnable. This is a story entwined with overwhelming gilt and loss, and the trauma of an entire species in mourning. Powerful stuff, certainly, and cleaving to the shadows of our darkest universal fears.
  • Penultimately, and therefore probably appropriately, “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor takes an entirely different tack. Set in Niger, zombie spider robots guard an oil pipeline, protecting the precious content from the would-be thieves of the impoverished locality with brutal finality. An abused wife entertains one of these bots with music, giving her a potentially key role in the resolution of the eventual man/machine war. Powerful for, if nothing else, its setting the subject in a starkly unfamiliar context.
  • The closing story is by one of the editors, Daniel Wilson, which I am not usually convinced is a great idea. “Small Things” is a longer piece than the rest, but it is very good. A scientist carrying the burdens of his creations is drafted in to help deal with a successor going wrong. What we see here is Wilson stretching his muscles, showing what he can do with the theme. It is knowledgeable, engaging, and compulsively reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. All in all, a great note to close on.

This is an excellent collection. Well edited by the alliance of Wilson and Adams, there is something to commend in each and every story. Entertainment, definitely, and all very thoughtful. It underscored to me that we are, perhaps, closer than we are willing to accept than the seeds of some of the scenarios here depicted.

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