Sunday, May 12, 2024

Annie Bot, by Sierra Greer

Gosh, this is good — and thrilling, disturbing and difficult to put down. Annie Bot is all told from the perspective of a robot owned by 34 year-old Doug Richards. She’s a “Cuddle Bunny”, mentally and physically programmed to please him. Sensors score his displeasure our of 10, and we get a constant running total. The same is true of Annie’s own libido. Keep Doug happy and she will be happy, too… but he keeps giving out mixed signals. 

Slowly, Annie learns to understand him — and herself.

“It occurs to her, eventually, that Doug and all the other humans talk about their lives with a myopic intensity, sharing singular, subjective opinions as if they are each the protagonist of their own novel. They take turns listening to each other without ever yielding their own certainty of their star status, and they treat their fellow humans as guest protagonists visiting from their own respective books. None of the humans are satellites the way she is, in her orbit around Doug.” (p. 215)

Effectively, the book picks up where The Stepford Wives ends, told from the perspective of one of the robots. We’re often ahead of Annie in noting and processing things. For example, there are Doug's bookshelves: 
“For fiction, he is long on Poe, Grisham, Wolfe, L'Amour, Hemmingway, Nabokov. There's a paucity of female writers and writers of color.” (p. 152)

Or there's a character they meet and seem to get on with, until Doug and Annie discuss the conversation later.

“'Could you tell she was trans?' he asks ... She waits, expecting him to explain why this is relevant, but he doesn't add anything more.” (p. 164)

Some things are innocuous, some feel more like red flags. The effect is that we're on the watch-out, too, for warning signs of his anger. One key, early clue to put us on our guard is that we learn Doug had Annie built to resemble his ex, only that Annie is less black. He’s also controlling (something his ex seems to have noted, too) and when Annie doesn’t please him there are punishments.

But Doug has also allowed Annie to be ‘autodidactic’, and the more she experiences and reads, and the more that Doug treats her unfairly — or even with cruelty — the more she comes to question the strictures of her existence…

Fast-moving and suspenseful, this is also a novel of big ideas. Annie is just one of a whole world of robot slaves, including ‘Stellas’ for domestic housework, ‘Hunks’, ‘Nannies’, ‘Abigails’ and ‘Zeniths’. Then there’s the industry to support these machines: commercial interests, scientific research and even a robo-psychologist who helps humans and their robot partners — Dr Monica VanTyne is more counsellor to them both than engineer fixing robots in the style of Asimov’s Dr Susan Calvin.

We cover a lot of ground, touching on the ways different people are affected by or implicated in this system. I’ve just read Alex Renton’s Blood Legacy so was very conscious of the parallels with slavery. But I think this is also a novel in a particular tradition of sci-fi.

Earlier this year, I went to an event where Jared Shurin talked about his new Big Book of Cyberpunk. That includes a long and insightful introduction in which he grapples with what cyberpunk actually is, but at the event itself he suggests that the US and UK tended to have their own distinctive kinds of stories. In the UK, those stories were often railing against Thatcher - the punk attitude to the fore. In the US, a lot of stories tended to focus on the knotty philosophical question of “Can I fuck my robot?”

See also:

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