BOOK REVIEW: We, Robots, edited by Simon Ings

we, robots.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Genre: Various

Pages: 997

Publication Date: 10/12/2020

Verdict: 3/5

Robots. Androids. Machines. Mechanical men. Sometimes they come as conquerors, sometimes they are our slaves. Whether they are the ultimate other, or a reflection of our own desires, robots have a long history in science fiction. Here are one hundred stories from along that history . . .

Though I’m not much of an anthology fan, I am a massive robot nerd. The idea of artificial people walking around has hooked me ever since I first encountered Asimov, so how was I supposed to turn down a hundred stories about robots? As with all Head of Zeus publications, We, Robots is a joy to hold in your hands. A built-in bookmark is always a good idea, especially with a tome of this size. Clocking in at almost a thousand pages, and with a small font size to boot, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the paper wasn’t that wafer-thin sort you find in some longer books. Inside, the book is split into sections, each with a rough theme. This is the only order to the stories, as the chronology of them jumps around at a rapid rate, covering a hundred and fifty years or so. As you’d expect from this, there is a real medley of narrative and prose styles held within the pages. There’s a small selection of poetry, then one-page stories, all the way up to a handful of novelettes.

With most anthologies, there are a few big name authors to draw you in, but that’s not really the case here. As Ings notes in his introduction, there is no Asimov or Dick, because you’ll have read them already. There are some authors more famous than others, but none are given prominence. It’s a neatly egalitarian anthology. I recognised some of the names listed in the contents. A.E. van Vogt, Xia Jia, Lester del Rey, and others. The only story I had read beforehand was C.L. Moore‘s ‘No Woman Born,’ but I had heard a few others by name or reputation. Overall, there’s a good spread of classic authors and newcomers.

H.G. Wells’ ‘The Land Ironclads’ is a story I’ve been eager to read for years now. War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are two of my favourite classic SF stories, and while ‘The Land Ironclads’ is a much shorter work, it is equally strong. It does, however, show just how much Ings stretches the definition of ‘robot.’ For me, some degree of autonomy is suggested by the words, the idea that it does not require a human presence. The ironclads are really just vehicles. For any anthology, you can expect some variation of theme, but perhaps We, Machines might have been a better title.

Two big names that came as a surprise are Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. Like so many people, I only know these authors thanks to secondary school English lessons, and seeing them in an SF anthology was wholly unexpected. Less unexpected was the fact that i didn’t enjoy either of their offerings. A lot of classic works do run rather long-winded for my tastes. Even when the story only runs to a handful of pages, the language is dry. One of the older authors who did surprise me was Jack Williamson, whose ‘With Folded Hands’ is probably my favourite story in the collection, and he is an author I will definitely be looking into.

That’s the best thing about anthologies. The opportunity to sample authors before diving in blind to a full novel. Williamson aside, I can’t think of many authors selected here who I will be rushing out to buy more of. In fact, many of the authors seem to specialise in short fiction while I prefer full novels. But there are a few names I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future. Conversely, I know there are some names I’ll be avoiding. Cory Doctorow’s ‘I, Row-Boat’ is a decent story, but also enough to tell me I won’t enjoy longer works in his style. Similarly, I’ll be avoiding like the plague several authors whose contribution to this anthology came in the form of erotica. While I’m sure there are plenty of real people who intend to use robots as a replacement for relationships, it’s not something I’m terribly interested in reading about.

A special note must also be made of the story written by an AI. The shortest in the book, it’s the most interesting in a meta sense. Taking a line of Asimov text and auto-generating the rest, the technology is very impressive. However, if this is the cutting edge of robot prose, I don’t think flesh and blood authors need be worried about the competition just yet.

 

If you read this book in bits and pieces you’d likely find a few new names of your own to look into. But read in a single go, a thousand pages of short stories inevitably blended together, and the majority are sadly rather forgettable.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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