Mother of Invention, a collection kickstarted by Twelfth Planet Press in 2017 in a process which involved hand-knitted robot rewards (I know, I missed out too), seeks to challenge the framing of cisgender men as the creators of artificial life. In the Kickstarter pitch, the anthology promises to “bring some genuine revolution to the way that artificial intelligence stories are told, and how they intersect with gender identity, parenthood, sexuality, war, and the future of our species”. By the point of the anthology itself, this has become “a book of robots and feelings,” aiming not just for diverse representation of creators and creations, but to allow those stories to exist "at different parts of the ethical spectrum."
Mother of Invention makes it clear in the introduction that it is aware how problematic its premise—and title—could be, and aims to avoid the issues that could arise from a focus on equating motherhood and femininity with the absence of a specific form of masculinity. This is not a homogeneous set of stories which put “motherhood” in opposition to “fatherhood,” or one that assumes those are the two binary poles outside of which no parental relationship exists. Nor are these intended as cuddly tales of the matriarchy, in which women inherently end up being nurturing and compassionate caregivers simply by virtue of not being men. What this anthology provides, instead of a counterpoint, is a range of perspectives from the margins on artificial creation and the relationships and questions that arise from a world where both exist.
Without anything but the broadest unifying theme, there's something a little magical in how effectively Mother of Invention hangs together. Each of the twenty-one stories feels well placed in a wider whole, with a single essay nestled right in the middle in an unconventional but effective position. There are some recurring elements, of course: many stories emphasise the act of development beyond a specific moment of creation, and even AI programming stories such as Lee Cope's “A Robot Like Me” or John Chu's “Quantifying Trust,” which do focus more on scientific development, are more about a process than a metaphorical spark of lightning. There's a few stories here which could be placed on a scatter plot between “programming” and “parenting,” although given the nuance in some of these stories such a continuum would probably need to go into about five dimensions (especially if one were to try to categorise Elizabeth Fitzgerald's delightfully proper colonisation tale “New Berth,” in which the creator plays the child role to their robot mother).
Seanan McGuire's “Mother, Mother, Will you Play With Me,” and Bogi Takács' “An Errant Holy Spark,” meanwhile, both fall on the side of treating robot upbringing as a parenting process. The first in the anthology, McGuire's story features a series of “games” set up for AI Nic by their mother. This casts a sense of ominous uncertainty over their motives as the tasks get harder—though never undermining Nic’s understanding of them as a parental figure—and sets us up for far more parent-child complexity (and ominous task-setting) to come.
On the other side, “Quantifying Trust,” in which a researcher attempts to develop a non-racist AI which insists on learning from all the wrong parts of the internet, is—when an individual claiming to be her artificial handiwork from the future wanders in—one of the most effective of these stories at really digging into what “programming” means in the context of other intelligent beings. Through her interactions with her more perfect future creation, researcher Maya is pushed to understand the dynamics of power she holds over her foul-mouthed creation Sammy—which mean he is able to harm her with racist slurs while she holds the ability to wipe his memories, but not to make him forget that she has done so. The realisation that she must seek to create the environment in which Sammy can be better without taking away his autonomy skates close to putting the burden of solving racism onto her (Asian) character, but it's handled well enough to steer clear of that conclusion.
The exploration of the power dynamic between creation and created in Chu’s story feeds into another common strand across many of the others, which often subvert the expected power struggles between creators and their creations, and generally between humans and artificial life. There are no dramatic robot uprising stories in Mother of Invention, and the tales of explicit revolution it does contain are notably quiet and reflective. “Bright Shores” by Rosaleen Love tells the story of a woman in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been supplanted by robots, who are now seeking meaning for their lives through sutras and spiritual practice as they take on curatorship of a broken planet. Told in a deceptively simple style, it puts forward a vision of the future which is unexpected but beautiful, while relying on a satisfyingly chewy underlying premise: could humanity accept artificial life as our descendants, not just our successors?
"S'elfie" by Justina Robson also posits a robot revolution of a very different kind. In a near future world where everyone has a "s'elfie" AI, which manifests physically while also maintaining that individual's entire online data profile and making autonomous decisions as empowered by their human, Huntress, the s'elfie of a woman named Diana, becomes aware that her human may have a secret. By telling the story through Huntress, who seems to wish nothing but the best for her human and to have a quite ambivalent take on the control which s'elfies now wield, Robson turns a sinister premise into a deceptively gentle thriller involving service-station Costa Coffees and the secret language of muffins, an atmosphere which justifies the narrative's non-reaction to the total reordering of human society by an AI collective. Less gentle, despite its charming central imagery, is "Knitting Day" by Jen White, whose young working-class protagonist is kept out of further education by the forces that govern her life, and sent instead to a factory which knits simple robots. Unlike the protagonists of so many of the other stories here—which can tend to rely on elite scientists—the work of White's is distinctly unskilled, and the undervaluing of what she and the other workers do creates space for a quiet robot-knitting resistance, inventing new life which surpasses the capitalist productivity expectations placed on both the humans and robots within the factory.
This trio of stories, which deal with societal change and resistance, highlight what I think is the greatest strength of the anthology: in none of these stories is there genuine incompatibility between humans, artificial intelligences, or any combination thereof. Where conflict becomes part of a story, it is not an a priori assumption or some inevitable result of conflicting thought patterns or identities, but a confrontation with reasons which are justified in narrative context. In all of the stories above, the conflict only appears in quantities just sufficient to making the story work, and there are many where the novelty comes from not finding tension where we might expect it—like “Junkyard Kraken” by D.K. Mok, in which a biomechanic develops creatures inspired by myth along with her biomechanical dryad buddy. This is not to say that Mother of Invention's tough, tense stories pull their punches at all: “Fata Morgana,” by Cat Sparks takes place in a a post-apocalyptic Australian community torn apart by war, and Nisi Shawl's “Living Proof” is a very well-crafted story of creation and autonomy in a dystopian context. These conflicts become more effective and thought-provoking when put into a context where conflict is not the norm, encouraging the reader to pay attention to the juxtapositions and to interrogate the context in which conflict occurs, both within each individual story and in comparison with stories across the anthology.
Because it comes across as so thoughtful overall, the few awkward notes in this anthology stand out more. The most frustrating pair of stories on that front are those dealing with sex work: “Sexy Robot Heroes” by Sandra McDonald and “Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms” by Octavia Cade. In both, the robots are male-presenting (except for one, who is altered to be physically female according to a client's sexual preferences—which I guess is supposed to be fine, because the mechanic is herself a trans woman), and being used almost exclusively by female clients. In both cases, the creations are shown to consent by default—because this is what they are “designed” to do—and while both stories raise questions around sexuality and sex work, their narratives lie outside of the perspectives of the sex-worker creations, and the lack of consent is peripheral, if anything, to the stories being told. “Sugar Ricochets,” in particular, draws our attention repeatedly to the intersection between sex, appetite, and body horror, with magical confectionery creations rented out to women who just “can't help” taking a bite, and whose appetites are thereby made monstrous. This is juxtaposed with the baker's colleague, a witch made of brass, who is seeking a magically induced romantic collection with flesh-eating crabs. There's potential for an imaginatively rendered exploration of the issues here, but it's undermined by the total lack of agency or interest in the sugar boys—maybe we are not supposed to read them as sentient, interesting creations, but this seems out of place compared to the rest of the anthology. While others may find their explorations engaging, the cavalier attitude to portraying sex, sex work, and consent seems out of place given how careful the rest of the anthology is about its themes and intentions, and I was particularly surprised that neither story had a trigger warning for consent issues (the book uses one for another story which deals with suicide).
The second surprise is that while there is plenty of diversity on display in this anthology, there's surprisingly little incidental diversity, and a lot of characters default to cis women if there's no narrative reason for them to be anything else. Perhaps this is a challenge of representation in short fiction: when an author has limited space, there's a mandate to make sure that every detail of every character, plot point, and element of the world, is given a purpose; but, despite addressing the need to look beyond easy gender binaries in the introduction of the anthology, a great deal of the anthology's exploration of gender does settle with substituting women for men in the creator role and seeing what happens. This puts the burden of representation beyond cis women onto a subset of creators, which is particularly frustrating when put into context with stories like “A Robot Like Me” and “Arguing with Strangers on the Internet,” which address how agender and asexual/aromantic creators, respectively, turn to artificial intelligence to cope with the lack of recognition and understanding among other people. Both stories are neat subversions of the idea that certain human identities can be represented by artificial intelligence, but it's hard not to feel that the rest of the anthology doesn't quite have their back in the way it ought to.
That said, some of the most outstanding stories here are those which take aim at marginalisations and identity most directly. Bogi Takács's “An Errant Holy Spark” is a beautifully told story which explores concepts of parenting, attitudes to alien and created life, communication, and Jewish identity in a dense, satisfying tale from the perspective of an artificial intelligence. “The Goose Hair of One Thousand Miles” by Stephanie Lai positions itself as an annotated translation of a classic wuxia tale, in which “Big Sister” and her six robot creations (which, as the annotation notes, are quite problematically named “First Sister” through “Sixth Sister”) are attempting to develop their martial arts skills—by learning to channel their qi to shoot lasers from their hands, in order to fight back against colonial forces. The text, with its annotations, is in turn hilarious and eviscerating, and does a great job in the space available of sketching out individual personalities for the sisters. Special mention also needs to be given to the essay, “Reflecting on Indigenous Worlds, Indigenous Futurisms and Artificial Intelligence” by Ambelin Kwaymullina, the collection's sole identified Aboriginal Australian writer. Kwaymullina presents an interesting and concise case for how the concept of artificial life does not provoke the same ethical questions about connectedness and status when viewed through an Aboriginal cultural lens—because the connectedness and worth of life beyond humanity is already enshrined in those cultural traditions, in a way that isn't present in Western thought. While it would have been nice to have some fiction represented in the collection itself that specifically explored this perspective, Kwaymullina's essay fits neatly into the fictional explorations of the same topic, and it's as well-placed as all the stories are in this very well-curated anthology.
Despite the occasional blind spot, Mother of Invention is an effective and engaging reading experience: one which brings together a set of stories, many of which are individually very accomplished, and raises them all to be more than the sum of their parts through the juxtapositions and commonalities between them. The anthology takes a step back from “default” stories about genius creators and their creations, throwing the door open to authors to really think through, from a range of perspectives, not just alternative answers to the questions this narrative tradition prioritises, but whether the questions are even the right ones, and what we could ask instead. It's a thematic exploration whose impact I hope to see on AI stories in the genre in future, and which has certainly changed the lens through which I will read these kinds of stories going forward.
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