Monday, November 2, 2020

Review of Made to Order: Robots and Revolution ed. by Jonathan Strahan

If ever there were a symbol of science fiction, the robot would have to be part of the holy trinity (alien, space ship, robot). Interesting, of that triumvirate, it is the only which doesn't require space travel: in essence, it's home grown, and for that perhaps more relative to humanity—anthropomorphism, ahem, ahem. But after a century+ of stories featuring mechanical people, what's left to say? Jonathan Strahan, editor of the 2020 anthology Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, says apparently something.

After a typical Strahan intro, musing on the philosophical depths of the subject he's picked for this anthology, the fiction opens with Vina Jie-Min Prasad's “A Guide for Working Breeds”. A light, airy, fairly insubstantial counterpoint to Strahan's intro note to kick things off, it is a fragmented conversation between 2 AIs. It has a fair number of pages, which don't travel far. I suppose the banter was supposed to be witty, and to some readers it may be. The story does, however establish the the anthology will be largely comedic in nature. Taking the integrity of the anthology up a notch is Peter Watts' “Test 4 Echo” A dense, taught story about robot-assisted exploration of the ocean of one of Saturn’s moon, Watts finds the gray areas (emphasis on plural) between human and machine intelligence. A solid story with a nice, organic twist at the climax.

Another reason the anthology has an overall comedic import, “The Endless” by Saad Z. Hossain tells of an airport AI getting revenge on his would-be switch pullers (i.e. decomissioners). A clever spot of fun. A far more serious tale, “Brother Rifle” by Daryl Gregory proves military sf can be done with emotion and empathy—all with an eye to the gray area between army-grade robotic weapons and human neural systems. One of the best stories in the anthology, there are several occasions Gregory could have gone the Hallmark route, but doesn't, and as a result it comes across as more legit, substantive story for it. Tochi Onyebuchi's “The Hurt Pattern” is about an augmented data sifter working for the government, tagging and bagging media. Story technique is inconsistent, and there are struggles maintaining identity for it (too much crammed in, just because), but overall a happy-enough medium between Orwell and 2020 culture wars. 2.5

As is Ken Liu's fingerprint in short fiction, “Idols” is an interesting concept not fully developed. About machine learning that approximates personality based on media input, the story deserves novel treatment to flesh out the variety of directions Liu pursues. “Bigger Fish” by Sarah Pinsker is a short, very light piss take on Asimov with not much substance beyond: corporate corruption is bad (nnn-k). overall, feels like a rushed homework assignment. If Frankenstein was the progenitor of sf more than two centuries ago, then “Sonnie's Union” by Peter F. Hamilton is a sign the well has run dry. A familiar idea played out in tired fashion—something even the peppy style cannot save, it tells of remotely controlled, bioengineered Lovecraft-esque robots battling it out gang style. Where Gregory’s story shows the potential of sf to address matters with seriousness, this story wallows in insipidity.

Somebody please remind me: a few years ago there was a story about six (or seven) ice-skating cowboy robots. It was short, sweet fun. John Chu's Dancing with Death attempts to inject a little salt into the sugar. About an augmented man/robot who is on his last assignment as an ice skating instructor before he is made obsolete, love does, it seems, come at the strangest of times. It's classic romance, right down to the “he understands my needs” and “he’s changing himself for me, oh how I love him” bits, except the woman is a semi-robotic male. Given how human a thing love is, romantic robots are a tough thing to pull off, and I’m not sure this story shines a light on the path how to do it.

If you ever wanted to hear the story in the life of the small black boxes zipping around the floors if Star Destroyers, “Polished Performance” by Alastair Reynolds tells you—except his is red, and her name is Ruby (natch). Fun (comedy I said, yes?), but so easily forgettable a tale. A graphic story intended to get a reaction for its starkly visceral elements but with zero substance beyond, “An Elephant Never Forgets” by Rich Larson is the second-person telling of a tells of a man's experience waking up to conditions unknown, and the hall of bloody horrors awaiting him. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but all I got was splatterpunk.

Who best to point out mankind’s foibles than an objective robotic mind, and in Annalee Newitz's “The Translator” we learn just how many faults there are. A tightly, dynamically written story that is more conceit than story, its sharp and brusque manners, however, ask to be given the time of day. I am a dyed in the wool Ian Macleod (read: slavering) fanboy. Thus for me, “Sin Eater” is one of the writer’s rare over indulgences. About the last Pope’s robotic confessor, the Singularity may perhaps never have been visualized do well. But the sentiment in which the take concludes is a little over the top (and that is coming from an agnostic).

Sofia Samatar has always cloven to the longest lived tales and legends we tell children, and in “Fairy Tales for Robots” she turns to metal humans of the baby variety. Putting a robotic spin on a dozen or so of our (humanity's) most famous, the sum being more than the parts in the way the story's substance reflects the human experience as much as what we imagine the robot's to be. Definitely one of the more subtle stories in the anthology, i.e. a story that actually tries to dig into our relationship with machine sentience. “Chiaroscuro in Red” by Suzanne Palmer was a real struggle to read given the unnatural, non-mimetic human interaction. Not enough stuck with me to comment upon save its pulpiness (another reason the anthology sticks close to comedy). That being said, “A Glossary of Radicalization” by Brooke Bolander attempts to close matters on a more serious note. Where Prasad's opening story is a very light take on AIs talking/learning from other AIs, Bolander's uses a similar premise but is more substantial and sophisticated in its development. It may not speak to the overall tone of the anthology, but it does give the reader something meatier to chew on turning the final page of the anthology.

In the end, Made to Order has a light, good energy. There is a little doom, but most are uplifting or funny stories. Overall the anthology is not of high quality, but it is more varied than Clarke's similarly themed anthology Upgraded a couple of years ago. There are a couple entries with substance (Gregory, Samatar, Bolander, and to some degree Macleod's are worthwhile), the majority, however, are middle of the road, to side of the road, with one in the ditch.

The following are the sixteen stories contained in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution:

A Guide for Working Breeds by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Test 4 Echo by Peter Watts

The Endless by Saad Z. Hossain

Brother Rifle by Daryl Gregory

The Hurt Pattern by Tochi Onyebuchi

Idols by Ken Liu

Bigger Fish by Sarah Pinsker

Sonnie's Union by Peter F. Hamilton

Dancing with Death by John Chu

Polished Performance by Alastair Reynolds

An Elephant Never Forgets by Rich Larson

The Translator by Annalee Newitz

Sin Eater by Ian R. MacLeod

Fairy Tales for Robots by Sofia Samatar

Chiaroscuro in Red by Suzanne Palmer

A Glossary of Radicalization by Brooke Bolander

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