We, Robots

by Sue Lange

Published by Aqueduct Press

93 pages, 2007

 

 

 

 

Understanding Human

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

 
In writing a novella with the evocative title of We, Robots, Sue Lange has done things that go against accepted wisdom. For one thing, it's a novella, a form that just doesn't appear a lot. (It is, arguably, a way to be considered for a Nebula or a Hugo, as the novella and novelette categories must have fewer contenders. That still doesn't make it easy.) And playing around with the title, well, I'd hope that no one would find offense, but imagine there are those who hold that you don't mess around with the Master, you don't tug on Superman's cape and you don't take Asimov titles in vain. One just doesn't.

Okay, one does. One should and I think Isaac Asimov would not only not be offended, he'd be pleased. Asimov, for everything he was to the genre -- a presence that will never lose influence -- was a down-to-earth man without pretence.

In We, Robots, Lange takes on a heavy science fiction theme, examining once again, what it is to be human. At the same time, it's deftly lightweight. The story doesn't try to redefine the genre (a little too much of that going on lately, I say) but it looks at the membrane that separates human and machine, which seems to be getting increasingly thinner. It's a topic that has fascinated writers and readers for a long time, and I like Lange's take on it.

The story is told, not surprisingly, by a robot, one chosen by a young, working class couple to provide some basic services in a future where such things are normal. Very basic robots can provide household work and guard the kids (important task in the future). This robot, one of the AV-1 series (and called "Avey" by Dar and Chit and their kid) is sold at Wal-Mart. Darn. I was hoping for at least "Robots R US" or "The Robot Store," you know? Even if they are egg-shaped and can levitate and seem pretty non-mechanical and un-scary, you still want a little flash.

There is an ongoing concern in this future about how safe humans are and how close the AI that runs these robots will come to human behavior and intelligence. The robots can't, for example, communicate by wireless technology; the flat-out fear is that they'll all get together and take over. What does happen as time goes on is that the AVs are recalled and retooled. They are "allowed," for safety's sake, as they near human (or higher) levels of awareness and intelligence, to feel pain, something that until that time, was not part of the robot's sensory world. Of course not, it's a machine.

Science fiction has watched as androids study joke-telling and robots solve crimes and we've seen robot/human interfaces that run spaceships. We've wondered about telepathy and have watched as people re-implanted their memories/selves into their clones. Carrying on a conversation, a la Alan Turing's famous Test has long been held as a model. Can a computer "fool" a human into believing it's human? What makes us uniquely human? Emotion, laughter, self-awareness, empathy, intuition -- or one of a hundred other things?

In We, Robots, the robots are taught about pain and are, in a way, humanized through it. I've read science fiction since the mid-1970s and at times have been frustrated and angry at how futurists deal with disability and human frailty and weakness. Too often, authors assume that if someone's physical body does not work, you get rid of it, hook the brain or brain stem or what's left to a machine -- the value of a person is in the brain.

Don’t misunderstand: this story has been told brilliantly. It is a viable fictional (and maybe factual) option. But I've lived most of my life with serious chronic pain. I am oh-so-aware of just how human it makes me. If robots get to have "pain chips," it changes our understanding of something I think of as fundamental to the definition of "human." It may also change their understanding of us or of themselves. Of course living things feel pain -- just where sentience lies is a different conversation -- but are robots living things? Are they entitled to human attributes and, if so, what if those are negative?

This is a lot to cover in a short work of fiction, but Lange does a helluva job with the issue. Her creation uses speech that's full of wit and colloquialisms to tell the story. While the robot isn't charming exactly, it's not difficult to have sympathy for the machine. Lange very skillfully couches the discussion in an unthreatening storyline.

We, Robots is part of a series called "Conversation Pieces" from a small press putting out feminist science fiction. Given how overwritten, under-edited and bloated some books have seemed recently, it was a pleasure that at 93 pages, We, Robots read quickly but offered real food for thought. | April 2007

 

Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.