Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Novella Review: We, Robots by Sue Lange

* Genre: Science Fiction, Novella
* Publisher: Aqueduct Press
* Format: Paperback, 93 pages,
* Publication Date: 2007

Sue Lange writes a thought-provoking novella of The Singularity in We, Robots. A short tale intentionally designed and written to get its readers thinking about the issues surrounding this notion of the Singularity, We, Robots is pleasant to read as well as to think about. Like its predecessor, Asimov’s I, Robot the story is about robots who gain sentience, unlike its predecessor, We, Robots is told from the perspective of a robot as it moves towards what the author calls “The Regularity”.

For those unfamiliar with the Singularity, it has many variations, but boils down to one main idea. Vernor Vinge, another science fiction author, both coined the term and popularized the notion in the 1980’s that at some point machines would be able to augment or replicate themselves in ways that man cannot foresee or design, rendering humanity obsolete. As part of the Singularity notion, some thinkers and authors have put forward the notion that transhumans – cyborg meldings of man and machine – would survive this event and even become an asset to the sentient machines, whereas normal humanity would eventually become irrelevant, or even die out. Ultimately, the Singularity idea boils down to a fanciful name for a point in which there is either the creation of self-improving intelligence, or a period of rapid technological growth so great that mankind cannot perceive what the post-Singularity humans will understand.

Lange uses We, Robots to take this idea and turn it on its head. Mankind has invented intelligent robots, capable of doing just about anything, and made them readily affordable, purchasable at big box stores like Wal-Mart. Useful, loyal, and above all designed to prevent any occurrence of the Singularity, these robots are just always on servants, with no motivations other than what is programmed into them. Avey (AV) is one of these robots. Through his description, we understand the robot mind both before the Regularity, and after it. The Regularity, as this story portrays it, is a point at which a crucial upgrade to the robots causes all of them to desire life.

That is not an end to the story by any means, because any sort of man and machine interaction does not happen in stasis, and so while the robots are changing, so is mankind. The question is, are mankind’s changes to themselves for good or ill? And so the story looks at the nature of humanity from the inside and the outside, and comes to some conclusions that are philosophical and provocative.

Lange writes well, and her story will resonate with readers because it takes place in a not too distant future, where many of the facts of everyday life in the early 21st century still exist. Wal-Mart’s, domestic service, school, and baseball are still very much a part of the world with AI. That familiarity of setting only makes what happens later in the tale all the more poignant. The mix of the mundane and the fantastic is well-woven, and Lange’s story is entertaining. She mixes humor into her story, especially in the interactions between man and machine, and Avey, whose primary task is the care of a young girl, provides humor in his emotionless reactions to the antics of this four-year old girl. Its a self-deprecating style of humor, so its not laugh out loud funny, but it does bring a grin to a reader’s face.

This novella makes for a great book to share with friends for a discussion around a dinner table, or for a book club willing to think about what makes us human. Its short length is conducive to quick reading, and Lange’s prose is easy and light. It never devolves into pedantic or philosophical terminology (except for saying “Regularity” and “Singularity”) and is enjoyable just as a story. Volume 16 of a series called “Conversation Pieces” published by Aqueduct Press it more than adequately fulfills its intended task of getting its readers to think critically about our love of technology, and our own human nature.

I recommend We, Robots as a worthwhile read that should be shared with friends. It will spice up your conversation. You and they can talk about more than the latest celebrity gossip, politics, or sports. Certainly worth its $10 price tag.