In scifi, the robot-human relationship is often a relationship that must be watched keenly, as machines with self-awareness cannot be trusted. Elizabeth Bear's beautiful story, "Tideline", doesn't deal with master-slave relationships. Rather, its themes echo a Shel Silverstein children's classic.
Bear's sparse story is about the friendship between a human boy and a robotic killing machine. There's been a war of some sort, and while no details are readily available, it's plain to see there's not a lot of life left living. Our robotic protagonist, the beautifully named Chalcedony, is waiting out her death/expiration on a beach, making necklaces. She runs into a young boy named Belvedere and they become companions.
Chalcedony gives and gives and gives to Belvedere, bending to his whim even when it means the quickening of her demise. Belvedere isn't trying to take advantage of his robot pal, but he's young and careless and she's a perfectly logical machine. On the surface, it's not a particularly complex relationship.
However, Bear prevents her robo-human alliance from falling into traditional boundaries. While there's definitely a some semblance of a mother-son thing going on, there's never really any love from Chalcedony. Yes, she protects and feeds him, but those seem to be moral choices rather then ones made out of any particular affection for Belvedere. By the end, Chalcedony gives Belvedere a mission, a quest to complete. Taking from her, learning from her, isn't the completion of his growth. It's a caring that's very different from traditional models, such as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. In the classic Tree, a tree gives everything to a boy because it takes joy in his joy. Chalcedony doesn't find the immediate joy of self-sacrifice, but she leaves behind something far more valuable. Silverstein's book is a closed circuit, taking place entirely between a boy and a caring figure. Bear decides to expand on this - Chalcedony's final mission for Belvedere shows that the mere survival skills he's learned aren't enough. To live, one must recognize the past, as well as the immediate. It's a brave lesson to teach, and Bear knocks it out of the park.
What/Where/When/Why? Bear leaves four of the five major questions blank, intentionally. Did a time period or background emerge in your head when you were reading "Tideline"?
Despite being an androgynous robot, Chalcedony is designated as a female. Why? Is this because of her caring, almost motherly tendencies? Would the story have the same effect if Chalcedony was written using male pronouns?
What does Bear make of war? There's a real honor to her soldiers, they seem exciting and brave. Yet their war has seemingly destroyed the planet. Is Bear's approach hypocritical?
May 8th- "Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts" - Ben Francisco, 2010
May 15- "The Cold Equations" - Tom Godwin, 1954. Recommended by Gaudy Mouse and uglyMood in the comments. Leave suggestions for what story you'd like us to discuss next!
[Photo via AndyWilson's Flickr]