While working on the anthology Mother of Invention, our lives and attention spans were full of knitted robots, intelligent spaceships, living computer programs and living creatures built out of sugar. Although our focus was largely on the creators of artificial intelligences and robots, several of our authors rose to the challenge of writing in the point of view of the AI itself. It’s a special challenge for writers, but so rewarding when done well.
Both of us love this theme as readers too, so here we’re sharing some of our favourites.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The original “build a human out of spare parts” story! Mary Shelley’s classic novel about creepy men building creepy friends out of spare parts has always been acknowledged as an influential horror text, but in recent years it has also been reclaimed as the starting point of science fiction as a genre.
What’s interesting about going back to the original novel is that it’s not so much about how to create artificial life (don’t read old books and try to work from outdated scientific theories, friends, you’ll never get tenure or funding that way), but what happens after you’ve done it, and your creation has critical feedback for you. Like all good science fiction, it’s about how science affects the lives of people.
Thanks to the epistolary narrative, we get a significant portion of the novel told in the direct voice of Dr Frankenstein’s artificial creation, who explains his acquisition of language, and his devastation at learning, over and over, that he is a monster who will never be allowed to fully participate in human society. Shelley foreshadows many modern “murderous computer/robot” stories by providing a personal insight into to the monster, who lurches between being a compelling and sympathetic character, and a creepy Nice Guy stalker who calmly justifies his most awful deeds, and feels he is owed love merely for existing. It’s… disturbing how relevant this novel still is today. –Tansy
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
You know a book grabbed you when you’ve named your devices after its characters. My PC, mobile phone and smartwatch are named for the various iterations of the trilogy’s protagonist: the ship Justice of Torrens, the unit One Esk, and the ancillary Breq, the “corpse soldier” AI who tells the story.
This book and its successors are deep, crunchy sci-fi, themed around conquest and leadership, loss of culture and identity on large and small scales, and—delighting many readers—tea. But what stands out to me is Leckie’s treatment of Breq as protagonist, and thereby as our window into the richly painted setting. Breq is well established within her culture, the Imperial Radch, and she’s powerful in many ways, but limited in others. Instead of being told that the Radch are a gender neutral society, we have Breq misgendering people from other cultures because she can’t read the cues. This is masterful world-building, operating on as many levels as Breq herself.
As the trilogy progresses, the personhood of artificial intelligences comes into sharp focus. It’s a brilliant conclusion for an ambitious series. –Rivqa
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
One of the most compelling POV voices I’ve read in years is in this first installment of the Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot—who chooses this name as its own identity, relishing all the associated baggage—is a corporate security droid who has developed a security glitch, enabling it to hack its own systems and ignore any orders it does not want to follow.
Murderbot hates humans, loves soap operas, and just wants to be left alone to figure out its own identity and come to terms with its history as a killer of humans who never wants to do that again.
In short, Murderbot is the perfect noir hero, solving crimes and saving the day while hating the world and wallowing in downloaded entertainment instead of bourbon. Murderbot is as snarky as a Raymond Chandler protagonist, but far more complex, and feels entirely not-human while still clearly being shaped by the expectations of humanity. I will happily read a zillion of these stories and the good news for me is that there’s already one sequel out with more on the way. –Tansy
Rupetta by N.A. Sulway
The eponymous Rupetta is one of two narrators in this beautiful novel, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2013. In an alternate 1619, Rupetta is built of brass, leather and wood and brought to consciousness by Eloise—a woman she first calls her mother. But her world expands over the following four centuries, from a secretive rural existence in Languedoc to a life as the nucleus of terrifying political and religious machinations. The second narrator, Henriette, provides a contemporary, and human, counterpoint to Rupetta’s voice.
As much as this book is an unfolding mystery, it’s also a beautiful study of the female gaze. By page 11, Rupetta has declared herself a woman; although she’s built in Eloise’s image, this is her own discovery. Throughout, her focus is primarily her Wynder: the woman who winds her clockwork heart. Her observations of these women are varied over the years—her psychic connection with her Wynders is both a blessing and a curse—but always unflinchingly intimate. Even as she reluctantly parts with horrific secrets that change the course of history, her gaze never turns away from the women who made and sustain her.
Dreamy, gothic and philosophical, this is steampunk like you’ve never seen it before. –Rivqa
The Tea Master & the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
The trouble with reading SFF is that you end up with amazing life goals that probably will not be attained during your own lifetime. It’s bad enough when a favourite book leaves you wanting a dragon librarian to be your best friend, or a magic school to invite you in when you turn eleven… and now I need a spaceship who brews tea in my life.
A really good cozy mystery balances rich characters with charmingly creepy murders, and de Bodard hits all the right notes in this wonderful, warm homage to Sherlock Holmes in which our detective is Long Chau, an angry and traumatised scholar, and her Watson is a calm, tea-brewing shipmind.
As with the original Watson, Long Chau’s story is told from the point of view of the detective’s friend, which allows a contrast between the detective’s technical brilliance, and our narrator’s emotional intelligence. Yes, the emotional work in the story is largely done by the spaceship. That’s how great it is. –Tansy
Bonus short fiction
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny Magazine) is a fantastic Nebula-nominated story that gets inside the head of a vintage robot called Computron who starts writing fanfic for a TV show because its favourite character (a robot) is handled so badly by all the humans in fandom. A clever, fun piece about the value of #ownvoices perspectives and how robots can be compelling characters to read about even (especially) when they don’t sound remotely like humans. –Tansy
Originally published September 2018.
Tansy Rayner Roberts (@tansyrr) and Rivqa Rafael (@enoughsnark) are Australian SFF writers who recently co-edited the speculative fiction anthology Mother of Invention, a showcase of diverse, challenging stories about women as creators of Artificial Intelligence and robots, available from 1 September from award winning Australian publisher Twelfth Planet Press. Order your copy through Amazon or Twelfth Planet Press. Check out the book’s website for additional content, including a series of fantastic essays on race, gender, and AI. You can also listen to Tansy narrating an audio reading of a regendered Frankenstein.