With Guardian Angels and Other Monsters Wilson offers us 14 of his finest futures that feel worryingly familiar.
Robots and the humans that use them concern Daniel H. Wilson. He studied robotics and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, gaining a firsthand perspective on how human beings are engineering their own successors. The title of his breakout bestseller Robopocalypse certainly hints at the misgivings the author acquired on the way to his PhD, but his excellent new short story collection Guardian Angels and Other Monsters offers a breadth of near futures that are less doom-laden. There are exceptions like “Parasite,” which is set in the world of Robopocalypse, and “One for Sorrow,” which connects to the novel The Clockwork Dynasty, but Wilson spends most of the collection interrogating futures in which we humans have become apathetic to the mechanical wonders around us.
Technology buzzes ubiquitously and is taken for granted. Robots have become as commonplace as iPhones, with old models littering dumpsters and curbs, making the next industrial revolution look like a shooting war. The robots kill here. Nothing in their programming forbids it. These are not quaint futures governed by Asimov’s benevolent laws of robotics.
Contrarily, the robots become faithful companions designed to protect their humans. The humans become emotionally attached to their machines, as we most certainly will, and it is at these points of anthropomorphism that Wilson is at his most dangerous and wily. His characters are terribly flawed beings interacting with technology of near-perfect design. The results of their interactions range from tiny larcenies to violent binges, but Wilson never allows the machines or the scientific theorems that drive his plots to blot out his human characters.
The robots often fulfill an emotional need his characters are denied by other people, becoming the latest technology human beings use to abate loneliness while avoiding other humans. The robot will never leave or break a heart if it is programmed not to. It can never disappoint and would seem the perfect support device in place of an absentee parent. To offer a perspective against this folly, the collection begins and ends with stories about children learning how to kill with their robots.
In “Miss Gloria,” the six-year-old daughter of a wealthy military contractor is abducted, but her kidnappers are relentlessly pursued by Chiron, Miss Gloria’s robot bodyguard and mentor. Chiron had been physically destroyed, but it is programmed with the ability to cast from any machine with a processor. And there is barely a space in the world without one. The story moves as relentlessly as Chiron’s pursuit until the final showdown at a beach where Chiron finds one last dilapidated body to possess. In the end, the machine reminds the girl of the last lesson they shared before their world erupted into chaos: “Someday you will be alone and will have to rely upon yourself.” The machine offers calm guidance, never losing its temper or patience. When circumstances force Miss Gloria to make a deadly decision she does so with the calm of a machine. Whether driven mad or serving as the port of Chiron’s final cast, the girl becomes one with the robot.
In “Special Automatic,” the child constructs his own guardian to supplant the ones he’s saddled with. Jimmy is a 17-year-old misshapen runt, a Quasimodo living on mean streets and in a dilapidated tenement. His brother, Mike, is a collector for a mid-level crime boss and derives his power from the pistol he carries: a Saturday night special. Jimmy is awed by his brother, despite the regular beatings, and uses his unsuspected genius to build a robot. Seven feet tall and cobbled together from the scrap he collects around the neighborhood, Jimmy’s creation is dubbed Special Automatic.
Jimmy suffers from seizures and has a neural web implanted in his brain to regulate its function. He hacks it to establish remote control of Special Automatic. Initially, Jimmy’s instincts from a life of victimhood keep him from realizing what he built. But he begins to experiment like a good scientist, testing his invention’s ability to destroy his tormentors, working his way up the ladder past his brother to the local crime boss. Special Automatic was named for a gun and evolved into a more personal and powerful symbol of deranged empowerment. It is the inevitable product of self-parenting.
“Miss Gloria” and “Special Automatic” are two of Wilson’s finest stories and memorable notes to open and close on, but the markedly low-fi “All Kinds of Proof” is brilliant for its humor and warmth. If so much of this collection can be labeled “near future,” this story of a prototype bipedal mail-delivery drone and the drunk that trains it could happen tomorrow. The drunk is named Joe and the drone called Shine, and together they map the mail routes of Portland like a talentless Charles Bukowski and a laconic Wall-E. Joe is awash in lower companions and is stunned by the depth of his affection for Shine when the machine goes missing. Shine isn’t advanced enough to talk, leaving Joe to fill the empty space of its conversation. They share the type of pure, uncomplicated bond that can only be formed when one of the bonded is an artificial lifeform.
But the story that has to be mentioned and read beyond the limits of genre labeling is “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever.” It is the chronicle of an astrophysicist who realizes before anyone else that the world is about to end and rushes home to see his daughter. There are no robots, just a world being torn asunder by tiny black holes, and a father protecting his child in their final moments. Tenderly rendered, the story best illustrates the power of Wilson’s craft. He is able to evoke deep emotion while working in the realm of hard science fiction, an area of the genre not often associated with warmth. But it is the emotion that resounds, and with Guardian Angels and Other Monsters Wilson offers us 14 of his finest futures that feel worryingly familiar.