Robot Uprisings

  • Edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams
  • Vintage Books
  • 496 pp.

A new collection of short stories reminds us to be nice to our machines – they are in control more than we think.

If you’ve ever yelled, “Customer Service!” at an automated phone attendant’s efforts to make you use the phone tree, you’ll be one of the first killed when the robots rise up. You should hope for an immediate death rather than life in the post-uprising world, where you’ll have to compete with other humans for food and spend your days and nights hiding from anything that recognizes your image or contains a tracking device.

In Robot Uprisings, editors Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams bring together seventeen separately-authored stories – most of them new publications – that expose humans for the flesh and blood fools we are. Each story contains an intriguing premise about robot sentience and shows a different aspect of the robot uprising. The best-executed tales are the most insidious. Even the light-hearted stories are creepy. Although Robot Uprisings is a collection, it feels more like a similar future prophesied by seventeen frightened oracles.

Do you trust that robot in the corner? The one you use as an alarm clock? Have you ever wondered what it thinks while it watches you sleep? In Charles Yu’s “Cycles,” you’ll find out. The minute before you wake is a long time for a robot to contemplate killing you. Told from the robot’s point of view, “Cycles” stands out for well-written creepiness.

Robin Wasserman’s “Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds” is the best story in the collection. Wasserman’s anti-hero, Pony, is one robot you’ll never want to meet. Once owned and loved but then mistreated by a human family, Pony now takes orders from a central computer system instead. He’s a soldier. He does what he’s told, but unlike most other robots, he feels bad about it. Pony remembers a time when humans weren’t “meat” but people he loved. Trading one master for another, Pony can’t repress memories of his human family or what he did to them. “Meat is fragile,” he remembers, “and tears easily.” This is the most gruesome and complete tale in a book full of disturbing stories with solid emotional underpinnings.

Homicide and servitude define much of Robot Uprisings, but love lurks, too. In one story, robot R781 finds enough holes in its programming to simulate love for an infant in its care. In another tale, a family of post-apocalyptic robots grows their own human and cares for it until they can set it free. A robot guard scurrying along an oil pipeline in “Spider the Artist” comes to love a woman who plays the guitar for it. With pediatric hostage-taking, the educational robots in Seanan McGuire’s “We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War” show their love for children. Some toys are Loved, and some are Broken. Loved toys do their best to care for hostage children, but Broken toys who don’t want children to grow up or adults to interfere are in charge.

If there’s any criticism regarding this collection it’s that some of the longer stories, while offering much in the way of innovative ideas and plot twists, do so at the expense of character development. The premise of Alastair Reynolds’ “Sleepover” is grand and unique, like the beginning of a universe-wide space opera, but the main character feels too much like a vehicle to tell the story instead of a real person. Still, “Sleepover” is well worth reading to find out what kind of dragons lie in man’s robot-dominated future.

Science fiction isn’t always known for great writing, but Robot Uprisings has plenty. Author and editor Daniel H. Wilson’s love of language comes through in “Small Things.” He writes that, for one character in that story, “A smile trampolines to the corners of his mouth.” For another, a portentous journey means “the plane and the night pound into each other. Like the surf crashing against the shore, each trying to consume the other without hunger or urgency.” And a hero searching for a madman finds himself falling “back into the memory – to a place where the pain is something familiar and it wounds me in a reassuring way.” Cory Doctorow’s “Epoch” contains some of the best exchanges, most of them from the vocal processors of BIGMAC, an older-model computer who doesn’t want to be shut off. BIGMAC thinks he knows game theory better than any “meatsack.” Sarcastic, friendly and devious, BIGMAC doesn’t think much of humans, telling one, “It’s a wonder you manage to buy a pack of chewing gum without getting robbed.”

Robot Uprisings is an entertaining and disturbing romp through many possible futures. Before one of the nastier ones comes to pass, let’s all turn off our phone’s location services, unplug our toasters and be sure to keep the Roomba in sight. Don’t give the refrigerator a reason to decide the milk’s expiration date is our expiration date. And whatever we do, let’s be nice to the machine on the other end of the automated phone tree. She may end up guarding the post-uprising road we’re driving to get to the promised land.

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington
D.C., her favorite city in the whole world.

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