Reviewed by Judith Field
Stories from the far side of the singularity.
This January 2016 anthology brings together the title story, “Glitch,” and two novellas, The Golden Hour and Eve, which appeared separately in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. They are set in a parallel world to our own, where artificial intelligence is routine and synthetics–androids unable to feel emotion that are kept docile by built-in restraints–carry out the mundane tasks of life and work. The stories, with a focus on the relationship between the characters, explore a number of science fiction themes, including consciousness and human-robot interaction. They also examine social themes like abusive relationships and even slavery. In my opinion, while having broad appeal, they would be particularly appreciated by readers of Connie Willis.
Glitch centres on Marguerite, whose job is to recondition used synthetics so that they can be redeployed. Her life changes when she receives Gabriel. He is a synthetic who was bought by a family solely for the son to abuse physically and psychologically, to protect other vulnerable family members from being targeted. Marguerite finds that Gabriel has suffered psychological damage—a phenomenon not expected or anticipated in synthetics. She also realises that he has started to feel real emotions, such as fear and despair, and does not know whether she can put this right. Overshadowing her work with Gabriel is the risk that the family, rather than having turned him in for good, may want him back once the physical repairs have been carried out.
As I read the story I began to look on Gabriel as more than a machine, but rather as something alive. In his innocence and simplicity he resembles an abused child. In this world, ownership of artificial life forms seems to be unmonitored and unrestricted and the story raised raises the question of what the moral implications of this might be.
The Golden Hour is a novella is about the elderly Claire Blandy, whose daughter gives her a used synthetic, named Andrew to help with household tasks. Claire discovers that Andrew’s time is running out and that he will soon cease to function. She discovers that he has had a number of previous owners, in the manner of a used car, although he has been programmed not to remember them. Claire identifies them and she and Andrew set off on a road trip to meet the people who have known him and, sometimes, loved him, before his time comes to an end.
At the start of the story, Claire comes across as an unsympathetic character, bad tempered and rude, fighting against the limitations of old age. She begins to mellow early on, when she decides to take Andrew on the trip so that his last days will not be thrown away on household chores and that he can find his past again. Each of the previous owners have a story to tell about the impact Andrew (known by the different names each family gave him) had on their lives. As a result of doing this for another “person”, Claire–who sees Andrew as more than just an appliance or a gadget–learns to care for another again. She gets a second chance at living her life and, in rediscovering her old passions, becomes fulfilled. By the time that Andrew dies, I felt it really was a death, rather than the ceasing to function I mentioned initially. At this point Claire continues the trip, but there are suggestions that her friendship with a man in her home town will blossom into a loving relationship as a result of her eyes being opened to life by her trip with Andrew.
Eve is the longer of two novellas in the collection and it is more complex than the other stories. This time, it centres on a female synthetic rather than a male, the Eve of the title. It looks at a number of themes including motherhood and the nature of the family. Rather than looking from the perspective of the human characters as the other two stories do, it does so from that of the artificial intelligence. It highlights the interactions between synthetics and humans, and also between synthetics themselves. It deals with subjects like the view of a child and of death and dying in an insightful way.
Eve is a devoted housekeeper to the Presby family: Paige, Michael, and their young daughter Ava. Paige is terminally ill and Eve was created to step in as a substitute mother to Ava after Paige’s death. However, Michael looks beyond this task and wonders whether it is possible for one android to make another. For this, he needs a synthetic that can be set free from all the constraints that hamper its imagination and its emotions. Step forward Eve. Michael feels that he can trust her to keep this forbidden experiment secret. He is her liberator but also becomes her unwanted sexual partner…I am not sure quite how to describe this aspect of the relationship between them. It raises, again, the question of what a synthetic is–in this case, more than a sex toy? Less than a lover?
Unknown to Michael, Eve meets a damaged and abandoned android in a hidden dump for the obsolete synthetics. This shakes her trust in humans–how could they do such a thing as abandon the synthetics simply because they are no longer needed? Now that she is free to think and feel and no longer docile, what will she do when she pieces the android back together and gets involved in the creation of something new and untested?
Eve steadily becomes self-aware and wants to create a life of her own. Overshadowing this is the patched-up android. The tension builds as this dark character forces Eve to reconsider the relationships she has with each of the family members.
These stories deserve wider attention than they seem to have had. I hope Ms Lombardi will write more.