One major theme that’s been running through science fiction recently is the rise of artificial intelligence and the impact that might have on humanity. As we continue to improve upon and refine machine learning, it seems inevitable that the development of a true AI will occur at some point. And consensus is that, once it does, humans will probably be in a bit of trouble.
The four books on this list deal with common themes: intelligent robots that are contemplating the nature of their existence, and malevolent AI that seek the destruction of humanity (and the link between the two). When it comes to machine intelligence, we will reap what we sow, as these novels make evidently clear.
“Sea of Rust” by C. Robert Cargill (Harper Voyager, $27.99)
Thirty years ago, humans lost the war with their servants, robots they created. After that victory, two different AIs have risen from the dust of that conflict and are now fighting for control over the few robots that are left. The two AIs are able to increase their power by incorporating new independent robots into their mainframes. In this inventive novel full of imaginative world building, Brittle is one of the few remaining freebots in hiding. Cargill gives wonderful personality to each of the bots in his novel. As each of these artificial beings examines questions about the nature of their existence and fights for survival, readers are treated to a thoughtful storyline that balances action, fascinating tech and the deepest questions that are fundamental to our humanity.
“All Systems Red” by Martha Wells (Tor, $14.99 paper)
The first in a four-part series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” Martha Wells’ novella follows a self-aware robot, who calls itself (you guessed it) Murderbot. The artificial being, which hacked itself to achieve autonomy, is tasked with protecting a team of scientists on a distant planet from an unknown threat. This book wastes no time in getting to the action. It’s a testament to Wells’ talent that this book’s plot and its characters feel as well fleshed out as any full-length novel. It’s hard not to immediately sympathize with a misanthropic robot — can’t we all understand the desire to just binge-watch TV instead of dealing with people? Wells imbued Murderbot with extraordinary humanity, and while this is a fun read, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s not a profound one.
“Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz (Tor, $25.99)
Annalee Newitz has some pretty spectacular tech writing credentials (she was the founding editor of io9, just to start), so it’s fair to have high expectations for her fiction debut. “Autonomous” follows two stories set in a future in which the class lines of our society have become even more stark. In one, a pirate named Jack Chen discovers that the knockoff drug she’s been making and selling might have some dire consequences on the people who take it. The second, parallel storyline features a cop-robot duo named Eliasz and Paladin who are hot on Jack’s trail. This novel asks serious and thought-provoking questions about the nature of identity and autonomy, as well as ethical issues in science, although the world building and the treatment of some issues could have used a little more work. The discussion of gender in the novel is provocative, and Newitz leaves her commentary somewhat ambiguous, which can make it difficult to follow. However, this novel is worth reading for the questions it raises and the character development of Paladin the robot.
“The Prey of Gods” by Nicky Drayden (Harper Voyager, $15.99 paper)
Nicky Drayden’s debut novel takes place in a future South Africa where robots have made life easier. The problem is the robots are starting to gain sentience, and it’s only a matter of time before they rebel. This book has a lot going on; it’s told from multiple individual points of view, seemingly disparate stories that come together as the book progresses. It can feel like a mess at times, but it’s worth sticking it out. Drayden takes her story in unexpected directions, with unrepentant action and a surprising amount of depth. This book certainly isn’t for everyone; it’s definitely strange and unexpected, with plot twists and turns along the way. If weird is something you enjoy in a read, then you’ll likely appreciate “The Prey of Gods,” one of the most inventive debut novels of 2017.