Review: Robotic Ambitions: Tales of Mechanical Sentience, edited by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner

Robotic Ambitions

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.

‘Whether striving to protect the family they’ve chosen, searching for meaning amid the chaos of the world, or questioning what it is that makes one alive, robotic ambition can mean many different things.

Robotic Ambitions: Tales of Mechanical Sentience explores the nuance of sentience manufactured and evolved within mechanical beings. It peels back the metal exterior and takes a hard look at what is inside.

‘Within these pages you will discover stories of robots defying their coding for a chance at love, resisting societal norms so that they may experience art and pleasure, and searching for their place in a world that was not made for them, but rather was made to use them.

‘These are stories about striking out on your own, building something new amid destruction, and doing whatever it takes to make sure you survive. Robots and AI are more than tools for humanity. They have their own goals, dreams, and aspirations.’

‘This anthology includes stories by Lavie Tidhar, Premee Mohamed, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Jason Sanford, and many more.’

Robotic Ambitions

The 25 stories in Robotic Ambitions: Tales of Mechanical Sentience, edited by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner, focus on the inner lives of robots who are well aware of the expectations of their human “masters”, the feelings and struggles of the biological and mechanical beings around them, their own mortality — and the conflicts that can arise between these.

Like the array of robots, AIs, and cyborgs presented by the contributors, I experienced a range of feelings throughout this book.

Some stories left me feeling hopeful, while others are bleaker in tone; some are highly introspective and moving, others more funny and thrilling; some feature particularly endearing main characters, and others focus on big, distinctive personalities (it’s no accident that the collection is introduced by Murderbot creator Martha Wells).

What they do have in common is the quality of imagination, world-building, thought, and inventiveness on show. As ever, I had my particular favourites, but as a collection, Robotic Ambitions is strong more or less across the board.

Of the stories that explore robots’ awareness of their impending obsolesence, one of my standouts was the sad and haunting It-Who-Dreams-Under-Grey-Clouds in The-Town-Within-the-City (Marie Croke), where a population of abandoned bots exhibit dementia-like symptoms.

Another was Out There With Them (N. V. Haskell), which explores a nanny droid’s divided loyalties between her small charges and her cleaning counterpart, who’s coming to end-of-life and has a dire warning for her.

My favourite stories of interaction between robots were very different to one another. Intersecting Datafields (Myna Chang) is a short and incredibly sweet story of two robots who fall in love and run away together.

In the fun How to Get to be a Three-Thousand-Year-Old Mining AI (Nick Hartland), meanwhile, wily AI Terry gets one over on his older, less developed but more sentimentally-valued colleague, Frank. Other stories also raise the interesting question of relationships between different generations of technology.

There were a couple of other stories of big-personality AIs that especially stuck with me. In the exciting Little Fathers of Darkness (Jason Sanford), a woman with a wise-cracking AI living in her blood has to see off an army of dangerously misinformed visitors. I’m now looking forward to reading more about the characters and their world in the author’s novel, Plague Birds.

In the entertaining Insatiable Life (Kathleen Schaefer) a robot chef, suspended from duty after accidentally murdering their human supervisor, will do anything to get back in the kitchen — it’s what they were made for, after all.

On the flipside, there were stories of endearing bots helping humans in need that equally captured my attention.

I adored The Caregivers (Marie Vibbert), where a network of friendly carer AIs help their clients club together to get the prescriptions they need, and Built to Cheat (Derrick Boden), where a robot croupier/umpire/analyst compulsively assists those disadvantaged by the capitalist system.

Prospecting (Lavie Tidhar), The City in the Forest (Premee Mohamed), Everything Else is Advertising (J Wallace) and Solar Sonata for Four Hands (Jennifer R. Donohue) also have optimistic vibes, offering hope for veteran robots, playful curiosity, journalistic integrity, and music, respectively.

On the other hand, The Town Full of Broken Tin Men (Danny Cherry Jr.) paints a very bleak picture, but is engaging, imaginative, and one of my standouts from this collection nonetheless.

Robotic Ambitions is an enjoyable and moving anthology that contains multitudes.

Alice Violett's Picture

About Alice Violett

Writer of blogs and short stories, reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK