Book Review: Robot Uprisings

Posted: March 10, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,

 

Robot Uprising(Robot Uprisings, Daniel H. Wilson and John J. Adams, eds. Vintage, 2014, 476 pp., $15.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This anthology has two things going for it. The first is its price–$15.95 is cheap for a 476-page book. The second is that it features three excellent stories. However, it contains seventeen in all.

The three that make this collection worth reading are Charles Yu’s “Cycles,” Cory Doctorow’s “Epoch,” and Daniel H. Wilson’s “Small Things.”

Yu’s short tale is about the inner life and thoughts of a sentient alarm clock–most definitely not the strictly for-laughs, bread-obsessed Talkie Toaster from Red Dwarf. Like Talkie, Yu’s AI alarm clock is funny, but it’s much darker. In the end, it’s hard not to feel both horrified by and sorry for the consciousness trapped in the clock.

Doctorow’s much lengthier “Epoch” concerns the world’s first and only AI, BIGMAC, who is hosted on a kludged-together system of ancient servers and other components, and who is in danger of being shutdown because he’s neither interesting nor useful (!) and is expensive to maintain. The story revolves around BIGMAC’s desperate efforts to save himself by manipulating his system administrator, Odell, and the rest of the human race. “Epoch” is replete with sly references, and is one of the funniest sci-fi stories in any anthology. To fully apprecfiate “Epoch,” it helps to have some knowledge of computers beyond that of the average end user, but even those who think the Internet is “a series of tubes”  should enjoy this one.

Wilson’s “Small Things” is a sci-fi/horror takeoff on Apocalypse Now (AN), which in turn was based on Heart of Darkness. The new element here is nanobot plagues; other than that, the story closely parallels Apocalypse Now. It has a first-person narrator who’s shanghied into a mission he definitely does not want to go on (in AN, Captain Willard/Martin Sheen); he’s briefed in an air-conditioned trailer by the military (CIA and military intelligence in AN); the tale revolves around a mad “genius” in a nearly impenetrable jungle (Caldecot here rather that Kurtz in both AN and Heart of Darkness); and “Small Things”  even has a nearly exact parallel (Lt. Fritz) for the worshipful Dennis Hopper photojournalist character in AN. About all that’s missing is the famous utterance, “The horror! The horror!” Wilson has a real knack for writing the grisly and gruesome, and “Small Things” should appeal to both horror and Apocalypse Now fans.

Unfortunately, these three stories only account for about 30% of Robot Uprisings’ length. The rest of the stories range from the merely pedestrian, to what would have been a good story that’s marred by a hackneyed ending  (“Executable,” whose predictable ending might have seemed clever in 1940), to one truly awful tale (“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War”) that pulls off the trifecta of being both cloying and ridiculous, and of repeatedly hitting the reader over the head with a heavy-handed writing gimmick.

Still, Yu’s, Doctorow’s, and Wilson’s stories are enough to compensate for the dead weight in this anthology.

Recommended, if you can find a cheap used copy.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and DystopiaHe’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover

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