The above illustration by Eldar Zakirov is for “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee in the May-June issue of Analog. This story is exactly the kind of science fiction I love. I hope Alec Nevala-Lee won’t be offended when I say, “At the Fall” is great old-fashion science fiction. The story is about a little undersea robot named Eunice and its companion support robot named Wagner who travel thousands of miles under the ocean hoping to find their home. I can’t help but think of the City stories by Clifford Simak.
Eunice is a hexapod, a robot with six tentacle-like appendages. It is one of five hexapods “sisters” (Thetic, Clio, Dione, Galatea) each with their own support robot that generates their power. The five hexapods were created to study deep ocean vents. Because these robots work so far below the surface, beyond the range of radio, they were designed to work independently from human monitoring. They take turns returning to the surface to transmit their data and check in with scientists on a yacht. One day the yacht isn’t at the surface, but the little robots keep at their job. Eventually, after waiting a long time for the yacht to return, Eunice decides to return to Seattle where it was created but it has very limited abilities to make this journey. “At the Fall” is about Eunice’s trials and tribulations crossing thousands of kilometers of the ocean bottom. (In many ways Eunice’s efforts to survive, remind me of Mark Watney’s ingenuity in The Martian.)
Writing good robot stories is hard to pull off. All too often writers make their robots too human. Eunice neither looks human or thinks like a human, yet we feel for it as her. At least I did. I don’t know why it is female other than its name. Eunice has no gender traits, but I can’t stop thinking of it as a little girl. I wish Nevala-Lee had avoided this issue with a genderless name, but we humans anthropomorphize everything. And would this little robot be less charming if it had been called Hexapod-5? For myself, I would have been fine with that.
I wasn’t hugely worried about this gender issue in this story, but I do think science fiction needs to eventually teach its readers that robots and AI will not have gender. Even sexbots will be genderless. Gender comes out of biology. No matter how hard we want robots to be like us, they won’t be.
“At the Fall” belongs to the growing sub-sub-genre of cute robot stories, like Wall-E and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer. At Nevala-Lee’s blog, he links to more about this story, including a conversation he had with Frank Wu who wrote a story about Karl 3478 who is also an underwater robot. I like this tiny sub-sub-genre. NASA was able to avoid the gender issue with their robots by naming them Spirit and Opportunity. A huge number of people from around the world became fans of these Martian robots and followed their exploits online for years. It’s quite logical to send robots into space and under the ocean, and they will slowly evolve more and more independence. I can easily believe an emergent AI intelligence could evolve in this type of robot.
I expect in the coming years for this sub-sub-genre to grow. It will be a challenge for SF writers to convey the mental view of these AI controlled robots. For decades science fiction writers assumed intelligent robots would think like us, and use our languages. This is completely short-sighted. The chasm between animal consciousness and machine consciousness will be vast. We can see how our minds evolved by looking at animals. We can see earlier forms of intelligence and emotions in their minds. We share their DNA. This won’t be true with robot minds.
Nevala-Lee did a good job at conveying Eunice’s thinking. Science fiction writers are limited by the tools of writing fiction when describing robotic POV. Quite often in “At the Fall” Nevala-Lee says Eunice experiences fear and anxiety. I’m not sure robots will have those emotions. Eunice spends a lot of time analyzing its plans because it knows it only has 30 kilometers of range for each power charge. But where would that fear and anxiety come from in a robot, aren’t those chemical reactions in a biological organism?
Language is another issue that Nevala-Lee skirts. Eunice’s world is very limited, and within the story, its grasp of English is limited too. But Eunice does say and think a few things that would be beyond its practical comprehension. The only way to explain what I mean is to recommend reading Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, which is a very serious literary novel about training an AI mind to understand English and literature. Powers uses far more scientific realism than most science fiction writers.
Neither of these issues hurt “At the Fall.” It’s an utterly enchanting story. There’s plenty of science to make it realistic. And it has a rather unique sense of wonder. Reading it suggests there is a growing future for robot stories. I believe stories about robots will unfold in the same way stories about did about space travel. Science fiction before NASA is distinctly different than those after NASA. As intelligent robots emerge in the real world fiction about them will change too. Any SF writer today wanting to write a cutting edge story about robots needs to think long and hard what real-life intelligent robots will be like. We need less anthropomorphizing and a lot more speculation about AI thinking. Nevala-Lee did a good job, but I hope future stories go further.
At Rocket Stack Rank Greg Hullender assumes human civilization in this story collapses because of some sort of EMP apocalypse. I didn’t think that when reading the story. I assume the fall in “At the Fall” meant that humanity went over some kind of edge. I figured the humans in this story all died in chaos from all our societal sins causing a world-wide breakdown. That starvation, disease, environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, and a host of other failures did us in. That’s why I could easily imagine automatic solar-powered recharging stations still working.
I hope before humans do ourselves in, we do create intelligent robots that will replace us.
James Wallace Harris