A new anthology gives some hints at the cutting edge of storytelling about artificial intelligences. We Think Therefore We Are, just out from Daw, includes a number of brilliant concepts amidst mostly lukewarm writing.
Reading Peter Crowther's anthology, I was struck by how little had changed, in some ways, about our ideas of artificial intelligence, since Asimov's and Heinlein's tales, not to mention novels like Gerrold's When Harlie Was One. We still have many of the same themes, including A.I.s coming of age, trying to become more human, struggling to understand humanity, or exploring religion. A number of the stories could easily have been written in 1970.
Other commonalities: Many of the A.I.s are female, especially the ones who have lovely bodies that male humans fall in love with or are seduced by. (Alll but one of the collection's authors are male, I think.) A couple of different stories reference HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are two or three stories about an A.I. that's fractured into different personalities, or a composite of personality fragments.
And yet there are many nuggets of innovation scattered throughout the collection. I really liked "Adam Robots" by Adam Roberts, in which two robots named Adam find themselves in a virtual Garden Of Eden, trying to unravel a modified form of the Adam-and-Eve story. (You expect there to be a twist involving what happens when one robot takes the apple of knowledge, but it's not what you expect.)
The story "Sweats" by Keith Brooke has probably the cleverest, and most surprising, concept of them all: someone creates an artificial personality out of pieces of different people's minds, and then installs it into the body of a hapless teenager. This artificial personality is designed to be a cold-blooded killer and sent to murder a politician — so one of the people whose personality traits is used to create this composite mind is arrested for murder. Can we hold someone responsible for a crime committed by a collection of his personality traits mixed with those of others? This story also incorporates a virtual afterlife (like Second Life, but only for reconstructed personalities of the dead) and is vastly entertaining, except that it has one or two plot twists too many and stops holding together by the end.
Also super entertaining is the story "The New Cyberiad" by Paul DiFilippo, in which two artificial intelligences in the distant future decide to build a solar-system-sized time machine to return to the present. They want to collect some present-day humans to repopulate the future, which is now devoid of organic life. It turns into a bizarre, rolicking quest narrative that contains witty nods at Gerrold, Clarke, and several other writers. At one point, the two boy-robots create a girl-robot to handle routine tasks, and then they both fall in love with their creation in a pastiche of the Pygmalion story. It gets more and more demented.
Also a fun read is "The Highway Code" by Brian Stableford, in which a sentient truck grapples with a road-centric version of Asimov's three laws of robotics.
There are a few other clever ideas, but for the most part this anthology felt stronger on ideas than execution. A lot of the writing left me sort of underwhelmed, and there are almost no memorable characters or really strong moments in the collection. Many of the stories in the book felt like they needed a bit more fleshing out, or perhaps a tighter focus, to change them from cool ideas to actual stories.
And then there were a few moments that I found actually embarrassing, like this bit from James Lovegrove's "The Kamizaze Code." A man and a woman (who are lovers) discuss sneaking a bit of code out of a top-secret Ministry Of Defense facility, and we get this bit of dialogue:
"I've thought about that too," said George. "You could smuggle it out... dump it onto a flash drive, then you take the flash drive to work with you..."
"Can't do that. We're not allowed to take equipment onto or off the premises. That's one of the things we're searched for every time we enter or leave."
"I know, but a flash drive is very small. About the size of a marker pen. And they don't do body cavity searches, do they?"
Jennifer caught his drive, and grimaced.
"It'll work," George insisted.
"Why not use your body cavity then, if you're so confident?"
"Becuase you have a body cavity better suited to the task. Trust me, I know," he added, with what he hoped was a safely salacious smile.
First of all, eww. Second of all... so this is a top secret facility without any metal detectors? And third of all, they don't let you take an ipod to work?
Bottom line: There are a few memorable stories here, and most of the other stories have something interesting to say about the nature of A.I. But this is probably one volume you'll want to take out of the library or buy a used copy of.