I have a confession: I haven’t actually read a lot of classic science fiction, and most of what I have read, I hated. Clarke’s too horny, Bradbury’s too racist, Dick’s too pessimistic, Orwell’s too reactionary. But one book in the “canon” actually stuck with me to this day because of its exploration of non-human intelligence: Asimov’s I, Robot. Through a series of short vignettes, Asimov extrapolates how an artificial brain might behave under the strictures of three simple rules: Protect, Obey, and Survive.
But however interesting this conjecture might be, it’s difficult to apply its lessons to the real world, where Asimov’s “laws of robotics” don’t exist. It’s more an elaborate piece of worldbuilding than a philosophical or political work.
In that regard, Kristina Stipetic’s Alethia feels like a spiritual successor to I, Robot. It too investigates the minds and motivations of very different robots in very different circumstances, but unlike Asimov’s work, it is impossible to not see parallels between Stipetic’s surreal world and our own.
Alethia’s story follows an amnesiac robot who, without explanation, falls from the sky into a city of other, different robots. At first, she is not the protagonist at all, just a malfunctioning pile of scrap that her hosts attempt to repair. The first main character is the queen of these robots, who, antlike, lays eggs every day that will techno-pupate into worker bots. One day she will lay the new queen, who will take over her painful duties for her.
It’s difficult to talk about what makes Alethia so interesting without spoiling it, as each chapter is a self-contained story with its own thematic and often jarring ending. For that reason, I’ll say only that the themes of the first chapter are reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, and that it climaxes with a scene that struck me deeply.
In the second chapter, the nameless robot, now repaired but lacking memory, home, or purpose, journeys across an alien landscape to a small village of new robots. There she meets a friendly robot named Camphor, whose wanderlust is stifled by her model’s short battery life – she and the other robots can’t go more than 400 steps away from the charging trees that they live in before returning to recharge. When our hero, whose battery life is vastly greater, offers to carry Camphor away from the village so she can achieve her dreams of travel and exploration, a problem arises: there are exactly 122 robots here, and the trees of the village are made from the union of two robots, which then bears two fruits that grow into new robots. Camphor’s departure threatens to upset this perfect symmetry, and when the rest of the community tries to stop her from leaving, I felt a particular nameless emotion that anyone who’s ever tried to leave the small town where they were born surely knows.
Each chapter features a new robot city founded on a different principle, which sets the focus and theme for that arc. But at the same time, Alethia’s amnesiac protagonist is also growing and changing. While in the first chapter she merely observes and questions, in the second she displays something akin to altruism, offering to help another robot achieve her goals without any direct benefit to herself. Perhaps she is motivated by the thought of any goal at all, as she seems to have none herself besides wandering and observing.
But in the third chapter that changes. In the third city, an apparent homage to Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s classic “Judgement Day” comic, the robots are divided into two roles: those whose bodies excrete crystalline silicon, and those who harvest it, painfully, from the former. Upon her arrival, a harvester bot asks her if she has come to evaluate their city for efficiency, which she immediately agrees to; suddenly she has a goal, a purpose. As you might guess if you’re familiar with “Judgement Day”, the city does not pass her inspection. It’s an interesting contrast, however. While the inspector in “Judgement Day” rejects that robot society on moral grounds, Alethia’s protagonist condemns this city’s caste system on criteria of efficiency – though it seems like an ethical analysis may also be forming in the back of her mind.
In this way, she is at odds with every other robot she meets. The ant robots, the tree robots, and the two-caste robots all exhibit strong emotions, romantic attachments, and irrational behavior. One city she visits is actually powered by its inhabitants’ anger. Another, through a testing system that reinforces faulty logic, seems to be designed to make its inhabitants act irrationally! But our hero’s expression rarely changes and most of her speech is, well, kind of robotic. Is she a less advanced model than the others she encounters? A more advanced one? Is it a symptom of her amnesia, or an incomplete repair job? These questions have yet to be answered, but the contrast between her pure logic and the frequent illogic of those she meets creates a perfect lens to examine the strange and imaginative scenarios Stipetic has wrought.
I’m still not sure if the longer arc of this story is about the development of its unnamed protagonist or if it’s building to a greater revelation about the world itself. But each stop along that journey so far has used its otherworldly robots to address issues of bodily autonomy, small-town angst, institutional racism(?), mutual support in queer communities, and failing educational systems, which means no matter how odd its setting is, it’s ultimately a deeply relatable and relevant work.