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We, Robots
Sue Lange
Aqueduct Press, 100 pages

We, Robots
Sue Lange
Sue Lange has held a variety of jobs since the age of eight when she pulled her first spud from the dirt of the Van Houten farm somewhere in central Michigan. Now she writes.

ISFDB Bibliography
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka


Sue Lange's We, Robots is a meditation on the passage of spirit into machine, an inversion of the Singularity fever which has so gripped our field these past years, blended with a solid dose of Silver Age futurism. In a sense, this is a one-story survey of the history of our field, and man's relationship with machines.
-- Jay Lake
While you don't usually review a book by quoting from one of its marketing blurbs, in this case Lake says it better than I could and pretty much hits the nail on the head here. If you're intrigued by Lake's description, you can stop reading now and go order a copy. Those looking for further details can continue on.

Sue Lange's title, of course, echoes the classic robot stories of Isaac Asimov, first collected under the title of I, Robot, which promulgated the Three Laws of Robotics. The laws were a response to what Asimov termed the classic "Frankenstein Complex" plotline in which the mechanical creatures run amok to destroy their human creators. Asimov's robots were, by design, incapable of harming people.

Lange's robot narrator, Avey, is built in the Asimov mold, with an appearance more in keeping with gadget-looking R2-D2 than the anthropomorphic C-3PO, but updated to the eve of the Singularity, the event when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence. To ensure their subservient status despite their superior intellect, robots are retrofitted with a "safety feature" that provides them, for the first time, with the sensation of pain.

Robots have historically served as metaphors for the subjugated classes, slaves and other indentured servants (the term derives from the Czech word for "forced labor," robota, coined by Karel Capek in his 1920 play, R.U.R. -- Rossum's Universal Robots) who in one way or another rebel against their masters, with tragic consequences for one or both parties. Here, too, the robotic role is that of servitude. The "rebellion" is a more benign, ironic role reversal -- the experience of pain makes robots more human-like at the same time as humans opt for pain stoppage inserts that make them more robot-like.

Lange is satirizing two extremes of the current technological divide. On the one hand, there's growing acceptance of technical extensions that have become part of our everyday existence (i.e., everything from iPods and the Internet to artificial joints and replacement organs) that were once considered merely science fictional. All of which make Ray Kurzweil's wet dream of downloading human consciousness into a machine body no more a crazy notion than the idea of putting a man on the moon was fifty years ago.

The neo-Luddite reaction, and here Lange specifically points to Bill Joy and his April 2000 anti-technology screed in Wired magazine, contends that the more reliant we become on technology, the less human we become. (While I'm as annoyed as the next guy having to listen to someone's semi-articulate personal conversation on the cell phone behind me at Dunkin' Donuts, and, consequently, have some sympathy with this position, I myself kind of like such technologies as polio vaccines and air conditioning.) Lange seems to come down somewhere in between; if the robots get the more sympathetic treatment, it may be because they turn out to be the most human.

This is a well told story, though nothing particularly surprising or ground-breaking. It adds nothing to the canon. What's particularly curious is that this is part of a series put out by Aqueduct Press called "Conversation Pieces" of both short fiction and essays that are loosely connected to feminist SF. Other than the fact that women can be considered a subjugated class (and there is a sub-genre of stories specifically concerning female robots, e.g., C. L. Moore's "No Woman Born" and Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy"), I fail to see anything about We, Robots that is feminist. In fact, Avey, as are all the other robots, is genderless, though its job of nursemaid is typically female. Other than that, Lange's theme here is about the human condition, not that exclusively of the female half.

In a brief forward, publisher L. Timmel Duchamp concedes that not everything in the series is necessarily feminist, and in some cases may not even be SF, but is a "conversation" among women about the future. And, sometimes the only way to talk about the future is to start with what has been said in the past. Lange provides a nice framework to move the discussion forward.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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