‘Imagine being a hedonist forever’…
Eating Robots is a collection of 30 short stories, offering bite-sized future visions based on technological advances, while holding up a mirror to our current social tendencies.
Most often I find compilations of short stories a bit hit and miss: there are powerful pieces, but hidden among weaker ones. As such I end up stalling, and taking much longer than usual to complete a book. Eating Robots is not like that at all. It is a strong collection with no weak links, and I couldn’t put it down. The stories are very short, sometimes only a page, and yet even in such brief pieces Oram manages to make a big impact. Of course, there is little space for character and plot development, but it is the concepts that are important here and they are conveyed in an innovative and distinctive way.
How do you think the world might look if we had an electronic universal credit system, whereby everyone received the same income? Where everyone would have adequate funds for food and clothing? It sounds wonderful. And yet maybe there would still be social outcasts; maybe new prejudices and poverties would emerge, because maybe that’s the way the human race works.
What if we could live forever, but not repeat the same phrase to a person more than once every 1000 years? If we could be with others, but necessarily end up in silence with only our own thoughts as conversation?
‘Some days his brain would be so hyperactive that he’d skitter from one scrap of thought to another. And on others he was unable to process any thought at all.’
It seems to me like the complete opposite to the noisy world in which we live now, where all is retweeting and sharing and regurgitating opinion. It made me think about just how much of what comes out of our mouths has been said before, many times. Put like that we seem dull and repetitive, mechanical almost. And yet even as an introvert who would relish the opportunity to live in silence a while, reading books and creating and imagining; a world without conversation and comforting repetition for potentially hundreds of years sounds like hell.
Some of the stories are explorations into possible avenues for AI development, including the commonly discussed idea of sentient robots, and what that could mean for us.
‘He wondered whether she was human or gynoid, a female robot, and whether that mattered. Rationally, he believed that it was important to know, but it wouldn’t alter his feelings. However the reality that he might be walking hand in hand with an artificially intelligent gynoid was testing those rational beliefs.’
There are also some radical examples of body modifications and enhancements here, including ‘Picasso’ people who go to extreme measures to show their love for their partners, brain altering pills to improve the performance of customer service operatives, and an unsettling way of obtaining meat without animal slaughter.
Then, just when the future of the human race was all feeling rather bleak, Eating Robots hit me with an old woman in piss-powered pyjamas who is over-protective of her robot helper, and a mischievous species of genetically modified moss. Very amusing, and welcomed for balance.
The last and longest story in the book – US – is also my favourite. It is full of feeling, expressing a harsh world of grief and pain in a minefield of defence mechanisms, enforced isolation and empathy. It describes the internal conflict between the need for human connection and the need for privacy, and shows the difficult truth of how the majority treat those in despair.
‘Agnature believes in goodness. She believes that, rather than a deliberate act of cruelty, they are so absorbed in their own lives and with their own struggles that they don’t notice the grey skinned woman.
I can accept that up to a point. Surely they get a small pinprick of conscience? Maybe they’re too lazy to engage with it. Although I also get a sense that the vibrations she’s creating, which feel like a never ending pit of need, are scaring off even the most generous of people.’
There is a lot of depth to this story in particular, and I just know I will continue to ponder it.
At the end of the book there is a section ‘responses from the experts’ in which medicinal research fellows and robotics professors give their comments on some of the stories. This was unexpected, but it did add some dimension to the ideas by putting them into a real, present day context. The stories in Eating Robots are after all designed to be discussion points, and for me they have already lived up to that because I couldn’t keep from reading parts aloud to my partner!
In summary, Eating Robots is a well-crafted, highly imaginative collection of ideas that are inescapably relevant to our era. At times it is terrifying. Other times it is whimsical. But every instalment is food for thought, and that is what I enjoy most in reading fiction.
Note: I was given a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.