Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review - Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs

There's a great deal of interest in short fiction reviews right now, and after my experiences with Long Hidden and Women Destroy Science Fiction (very excited that Women Destroy Fantasy & Women Destroy Horror also just came out, although I'll probably be skipping horror stories), I'm trying to read more short stories as well.  Crossed Genres Issue #22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs came out yesterday, and I found myself enjoying (not unreservedly) all three stories in the issue.

Mabo by Megan Chaudhuri is a far-future tale set on a distant planet.  The problem of interstellar travel has been solved by sending off robots implanted with human embryos and maternal programming to raise the first generation of humans on arrival.  The protagonist is one of those children, raised alone (most robots raised 2-3 children) and born without arms.  She tells the stories of discovering that difference to her own children, eventually coming to an understanding and reconciliation with her mother-robot, Mabo.  Of the three stories, Mabo most clearly highlights the differences of purpose-built robots.  Mabo herself is easy to visualize, alien, and maternal. The child is perhaps overly naive, but strong and charming.  The ending felt a bit rushed, but I appreciated the complexity and nuance of attempting to reconcile a purpose-built, algorithm-driven machine, with the maternal instincts and drive that those algorithms were intended to create.  My main complaints are the brief interludes with the children, which may be necessary for pacing and occasionally worldbuilding, but mostly just dragged me out of the story building between the girl and her mother.  Also, the language occasionally jumped to light vulgarity in ways that didn't feel particularly natural.  This might have been an intentional play on how robots, and those raised by them, would use different rules for escalating to curses, but I found it jarring.  Of the three stories, Mabo was my favorite.

When They Come Back by Natalia Theodoridou is the story of a wandering cyborg and an angel in a post apocalyptic setting.  The "they" of the title are humans, who have disappeared from the land.  Now most cyborgs hunt angels, who can change their shape (and apparently need to change periodically as they grow exhausted).  Our two main characters wander, looking for hope, and exchanging fantasies about what will happen When They Come Back.  The plot, such as there is, is episodic, with the sense that the story could be continued almost indefinitely if the author wanted to pull out other themes from this world.  Most of the episodes lying between the beginning and the end felt a bit weak, and while I plan a separate post specifically about how I reacted to two of the episodes & what that says about my reading expectations, it's not clear why the story is the length it is, rather than adding or removing an episode.

The ending of When They Come Back is enigmatic, and perhaps over dramatic, but despite my complaints about the episodic nature of the story (again I think this partly reflects my own expectations that stories of any length should point towards ending and get there with all deliberate speed), I found the atmosphere evocative and enjoyable.  I didn't love the story, but I'd like to rediscover it from time to time. I suspect I'd highlight different elements each time.

The concluding story in the anthology, Daddy's Girl, by Eleanor R. Wood, is also the weakest, though even this one managed to finish quickly enough I didn't dislike it.  The premise is that through an experimental procedure the girl's father has been transferred into a robot body, and then the software crashes, leaving him unresponsive.  The story gestures towards a series of dismal economic trends in order to leave the girl without any means to repair her father: the company that originally made the father goes out of business, there is a lack of new research in the field due to economic downturn, the consequences of income inequality are manifested as the girl takes up a paper route in an attempt to save up for the impossibly high fees any repair would cost, and even when she becomes a researcher, she is isolated by the scheming of her fellow academics.  While elements of the story are familiar, there's not enough groundwork to support them.  This would be a problem if the complex setup was more than an opportunity to tell a heartwarming story about a girl driven from a young age to serious studies in order to be reunited with her father.  Beth is just charming and dedicated enough that the story finishes with a warm glow before exasperation at the details take it down.

With a collection, it's worth examining the whole as well as the parts.  In this issue, Crossed Genres tackled Robots, Androids and Cyborgs with a story that presented robots governed by specific yet flexible algorithms, cyborgs whose behavior is nearly indistinguishable from humans other than an irreversible directive against self harm, and an android housing a human identity in all it's complexity.  Between them, the three stories present a variety of relationships and technologies that seem startlingly feasible.  I enjoyed all three of the stories (which I had not expected), and I think they fit well together in imagining ways that we may relate to our technology in its increasing complexity.  As I reflect on the theme, the imagined identities and levels of technology seem somewhat parochial - I would have enjoyed a story utilizing technologies qualitatively different from those we now imagine, rather than simply the added quantitative complexity, and I would have liked a theme that addressed how we now interact in an increasingly connected world.  This issue feels like it could have been imagined and written years ago, rather than imagining a future to come.

That having been said, I enjoyed all three of these stories and think they nicely complement each other.  Mabo is an enjoyable story that does a fundamentally important job of illustrating the differences, strengths and limitations of humans and robots, and reconciling them in a single community and family.  When They Come Back does not lend itself to easy interpretation, and is one that I would like to read and revisit for years to come.  Even Daddy's Girl managed to overcome weaknesses in the premise to charm me into rooting for a long desired family reunion.  Crossed Genres Issue 22: Robots, Androids & Cyborgs is worth a read.

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*Unfinished - My reactions to a pair of episodes in When They Come Back and what I think they reveal about my expectations as a reader.

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