I'm always excited by the prospect of a new cultural perspective on speculative fiction, and Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep seemed to fit the bill. Edited by Peter Öberg, the anthology is described as a way to showcase that Sweden is more than just "cheap furniture, meatballs and crime fiction." Unfortunately, many of the stories in the anthology recycle so many science fiction tropes that they might as well be the aforementioned prefabricated IKEA loungers, riffing on the same showroom pieces we've all seen before.
Many of the stories in the anthology take on familiar themes. In "The Membranes in the Centering Horn," by KG Johansson, man's greed costs humanity an alien gift that could have cured all diseases. Markus Sköld's "Outpost Eleven" is your classic space horror story: there's an outpost, there's something creepy, and people are dying one by one. "The Publisher's Reader" (Patrik Centerwall) features a dystopian future where all literature is censored, but the main character finds herself being moved by a refreshingly original novel and she defies the Powers That Be.
Of course, there isn't anything wrong with tackling the familiar. A classic story is a classic for a reason and, when well executed or modernized, a revival can be a pleasure to read. Boel Bermann's "The Rats," for instance, builds up nicely to its The Twilight Zone-inspired reveal. "To Preserve Humankind," by Christina Nordlander, is well done, told from the perspective of an android who finds a loophole in Asimov's Laws that rationalizes lobotomizing the human race. "The Order of Things" by Lupina Ojala, meanwhile, is also satisfying: a mother has to choose between her own principles and saving her son.
The main problem in many of these stories, however, is that they seemed more preoccupied with developing their "twist" than in building characters and worlds. This is particularly problematic because the modern reader, post-M. Night Shyamalan, is fairly savvy, making "twist" endings much more predictable and, without the backbone of character development, much less effective. It would have been terrific if we could have spent some more time in some of these characters' shoes or, at the very least, if their personal arcs had matched their external struggles.
Sara Kopljar's "The Mirror Talks," for instance, showed much promise. Like an episode of the acclaimed TV series Black Mirror, "The Mirror Talks" is about a woman who uses artificial intelligence to recreate a lost loved one—in this case, a child. With such a premise, the emotional stakes are high, and we're already on the edge of our seats because there's no way this can end well. However, instead of fleshing out the character and developing her emotional reality, the story relies entirely on the fact that "dead child = bad," treating that emotional beat as a foregone conclusion. Another piece of the puzzle that never quite fits is the main character's secret desire to harm children. This leaves us with additional questions: did she perhaps kill her real child? Is she going to use this new artificial child as a way to fulfill taboo desires? Were her murderous desires dormant until she met the new artificial child? If so, why?
Once she starts abusing the android, she angsts over the fact that "I keep hurting it. I feel like I'm going insane. I was supposed to love this android; I was supposed to have my child back. I can't control myself anymore. I hit it and hurt it and the worst part is, I think I like it" (pp. 276). But what about the grief that started her down this path? It's never resolved, and the parallels between the dead child and new child are never quite clarified. Her violent impulses and her need to be a mother would have been interesting to explore, but with such little context, the story only skims the surface of such pathos.
This type of surface characterization is a problem that permeates some of these other stories, the protagonists sometimes falling flat by lingering in the cliché. Other characterizations, meanwhile, are wholly unconvincing, such as a supposed engineering genius whose technical acumen is demonstrated by noticing a pipe is dented. "I think the dented pipe is a symptom of the rubber seal," says the hero in "Melody of the Yellow Bard." "Impressive!" says someone who is apparently qualified to be a part of an off-world exploration team, but for some reason couldn't notice that a pipe was dented on an important piece of equipment (pp. 22).
There's also the captain in "Outpost Eleven," who seems more concerned with a note from her crush than the fact that there's an expanding space anomaly right outside her outpost—one that is known to destroy nearly all spaceships that pass through it. Similarly, a headstrong girl hates androids for no real reason in "Keep Fighting until the Machines Fall Asleep" (Eva Holmquist). She says she wants "freedom," but we never get to see the kind of supposedly fascist society she lives in. With a plot device that tenuous, it doesn't help that her memory loss clearly telegraphs the suspicion that she's an android herself.
Elsewhere, "Quadrillennium" by A. R. Yngve is a story that, unlike many of the others here, succeeds with just a plot twist. It takes a dark look at interpreting religions and traditions which become divorced from their original contexts, depicting a twisted take on the Christmas tradition. Each year, using advanced technology, a family "bakes" an AI-powered Christ and crucifies him. Cleverly, the narrator mentions how some people in the future think that this isn't the right way to interpret the holy texts—those people think that orthodox tradition dictates that Christ's body should be cannibalized after being awakened from its cryogenic sleep. The "twist," in this case, works well by answering the question of how people in the future might view our current practices.
Other stories rise to the top, such as "Getting to the End" by Erik Odeldahl, which depicts an ever-shifting cityscape that is part madness, part technological disaster. Not only is the premise fairly unique, but Odeldahl also allows us to get to know the characters before he expertly builds up to the eventual reveal that they're all a part of a story written and re-written by an artificial intelligence. He also creates a world with its own rules: the characters use "anti-beat machines" that throw off grotesque monsters which track victims using rhythm and repetition. There's a strong sense of place as the protagonist traverses the "Hole," heading into the "Event Sector," where some unknown force is constantly destroying and re-creating the environment.
The anthology really shines, then, when its stories center around a particular question, either posed or answered. There are some gems hidden amongst the chaff for sure, but I can't help but feel that, overall, Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep was a wasted opportunity to show what could have been a uniquely Swedish take on its chosen tropes. It's a problem of specificity: many of the stories seem to take our fascination with the future for granted, painting it in broad strokes without digging deeper and exploring why we're interested.
That brings us back to title of this anthology. There is, it's true, a story here entitled "Keep Fighting until the Machines Fall Asleep," but otherwise the title does little to bring these disparate, and sometimes disappointing, stories together. If I were to assign some meaning to the phrase, it would be that, generally speaking, many of these stories paint a rather dire picture of the future—perhaps we're "waiting for the machines to fall asleep" so we can resume a more "natural" or "pre-technological" lifestyle. Indeed, the most successful stories in the collection offer us a glimpse not only of the possibilities of future technological advances but also of their consequences.
One such story is Oskar Källner's "One Last Kiss Goodbye." The setup is simple: A woman is offered a chance to explore outer space at the cost of her marriage. She takes the extraordinary opportunity and, after many years, she visits her husband when he is an old man and she has aged only a handful of years. During their bittersweet reunion, she asks him for one last sacrifice: a DNA sample so that she might bear their child and help repopulate the stars. "One Last Kiss Goodbye" isn't anything new nor is it a particularly Swedish story. However, it's genuine and it actually shows us what might happen to us while we are waiting for the machines to fall asleep.
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