The term “Artificial Intelligence” can conjure a wide array of emotions from people, ranging all the way from excitement to fear. Writers have been playing with the storytelling possibilities of robots and AI (and our relationship with them) since long before personal computers were an everyday reality.
In the past, when I’ve thought about A.I. characters, the first names that came to mind are all based in visual media, drawn from film and TV. Examples run the gamut from the Terminator to Rosie the Robot, the Cylons to C-3PO and R2-D2, Bishop in Aliens to Data in Star Trek; all of these characters showcase the wide scope of possibilities offered by A.I. characters. This encompasses simpler forms (like the Robot from Lost in Space) to more complex models (like Bender from Futurama, in all his sarcastic, narcissistic glory). It didn’t necessarily occur to me to think about examples of robots and AI characters drawn from books and fiction, for some reason…
Last year, after reading Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, this changed. In the novel, he introduces readers to an Artificially Intelligent ship called MB-1021, nicknamed M-Bot. The book’s protagonist, Spensa, tries out the nickname “Massacre-Bot,” but M-Bot never accepts it. It’s at total odds with his programming—he just wants to collect mushrooms and tell people they have nice shoes. Now whenever the subject of memorable AI characters comes up, he’s the first one who comes to mind. He’s a delight, and one of my favorite aspects of the story; M-Bot may only exist as program codes in the ship, but he brings forth all my human emotions.
While reading along and watching M-Bot and Spensa’s friendship develop in Skyward and the new sequel, Starsight, I started thinking about other fictional AI characters that felt as lovable and charming as. M-Bot, in their own ways. If I could introduce M-Bot to other AI characters, who would I have him meet? What other AI characters in books would relate to him, and have engaging conversations?
Before we begin the list, I have to offer a nod to the work of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. These authors are, of course, absolutely foundational when talking about AI characters. Their influence is everywhere and all-encompassing…which makes it very difficult to pick just one character by any of them.
Instead, this list highlights AI characters that make me laugh and which haven’t gotten as much attention in the AI spotlight as those created by Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke over the years. Minor spoilers for all the books discussed below…
Iko, The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
Iko is an android with a glitch in her programming. This glitch makes her more humanlike in behavior, to the point of forgetting that she’s not human. Iko loves fashion and shoes, even though she can’t wear them when we first meet her. She is a loyal friend and encourages Cinder to take risks, which often drives the plot in interesting directions. Iko also exhibits quite a bit of sass. She will not be ignored, nor will she allow harm to come to her friends. I can see her and M-Bot enjoying extremely fun conversations about footwear, in between rescuing their friends from tough situations.
E. (for Egghead/Error), House of Robots by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
A book aimed more at middle school readers, this story uses illustration to help you fall in love with Egghead and his family. Invented by Dr. Hayes, Egghead is meant to serve as the eyes and ears for her daughter Maddie, who can’t leave the house without risking illness. E. has a rough time adjusting to his new life at first. Sammy, Maddie’s brother and E.’s companion for much of the story, is often embarrassed by E.’s actions at home and school, and nicknames him “Error” for a time. In time, however, they find their way and grow into a family. Elements of the story might remind readers of the Not Quite Human series by Seth McEvoy, but thankfully without the questionable ethics of Professor Carson. E. is a scout in many ways, like M-Bot, but both struggle to truly understand the humans around them, despite being built to help them.
Sidra and Owl, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Readers meet these two AI characters in the sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, yet the two books stand on their own as independent stories. First we meet Lovelace (later Sidra), who was meant to be in control of a whole ship, but now is installed in a body unit, her abilities limited to one set of eyes to observe the world. Her adjustment, as she relates to this new way of experiencing the world, ranges from heartbreaking to amazing. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, we meet Owl, another ship AI who is trying to help keep a lost child alive in a harsh environment. She is a voice of reason and compassion throughout the story. Spoiler: Their eventual meeting caused me tears of joy. I think both Sidra and Owl could connect deeply with M-Bot over their mutual experiences of surviving in isolation in harsh environments. (Along with a sidebar where Owl and M-Bot chat about the challenges caring for young and stubborn humans. I’m chuckling at the thought of this talk…)
Murderbot, The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
Murderbot has an intimidating name and appearance, but really they just want to watch media serials all day. If only the humans they try to protect would stop making stupid choices. The choices a SecUnit with a hacked government module can make are limitless. Thankfully, Murderbot decides to continue to watch over the humans under their care. Murderbot has an internal monologue so filled with sarcasm and wryness that I can’t help but enjoy their thoughts. They have a sense of humor that’s full of irony, which I appreciate greatly. Murderbot and M-Bot don’t have much in common on the surface, besides their similar names, but I could see them bonding over the crazy humans and the lengths both will go to protect their charges. I’m betting M-Bot would love the media serials too, once Murderbot gets him hooked…
Marvin the Paranoid Android, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
A suicidal, deeply depressed robot might seem an odd choice for this list, but I think M-Bot could help Marvin put his “brain the size of a planet” to good use and maybe feel marginally less depressed during their time together. Droll British humor is not everyone’s cup of tea, yet I really enjoy the snark Marvin brings to the HHGTTG books. I want to hug him, even though he would not enjoy it. Marvin is a survivor; he turns up when not expected and against the odds. He can also destroy any hostile robots by just talking to them. Marvin has an impressive set of skills that are totally not appreciated by the bipedal beings he typically has to support on the Heart of Gold.
Finally, just for the record, I would also love for M-Bot to have an encounter with R2-D2 and C-3PO. However, I’ve never read the Star Wars novels and stories, so I’m not sure which series of the now non-canon Expanded Universe is the best one to highlight the robots just being themselves…
What robots/AIs would you like to see M-Bot have a conversation with? And if you haven’t read the Skyward books yet, which artificial intelligences do you think would make for the best mash-up pairing?
Deana Whitney—Callsign: Braid—is a Sanderson Beta reader, a historian, a cook, and an avid reader. Known as Braid_Tug on Tor, she is working on another Cosmere Cuisine article.