BSFA nominee: “Little Lost Robot”

And last but not least (yes, I know I got my order mixed up), we have Paul McAuley’s “Little Lost Robot”: read here [pdf] or listen here. The roundup:
Martin Lewis:

This is very much the winner by default. There is nothing massively interesting about it – a giant robot flies around the universe exterminating humanity before being confronted by its origins – but at least it isn’t completely bloodless. The stories by Chiang and Rickert are icily perfect and pointless, the story by Egan could have done with being a bit more abstract, out of all of them only McAuley is having fun and being serious at the same time.

David Hebblethwaite at The Fix:

In his notes on “Little Lost Robot,” Paul McAuley says he was aiming to subvert the usual template of the killer-robot story by telling the tale from the viewpoint of the machine. So, here we have a “superbad big space robot” dedicated to roaming the universe and destroying all life. It’s nigh-on invincible—so good at its job, in fact, that it’s running out of targets. The robot is keen, therefore, to chase after a new signal it picks up far away, even though it seems naggingly familiar for some reason. By the time the robot arrives, the signal is gone, but then the machine notices an apparent infiltration into its own programming, and then…

As may be anticipated, this story is rather dense with information; it’s a mark of McAuley’s skill that the tale drags so little. The beginning is especially striking, as the author weaves language evocative of space opera movies (”Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world”) into prose of a more literary style, which has the effect of anchoring this impossible creation into the fictional reality—it’s an aid to suspending disbelief. As for the rest, good prose can only take “Little Lost Robot” so far; its ultimate success depends on its ideas. And, though the ideas were interesting enough whilst I was reading the story, sadly I didn’t find them striking enough to think about them much afterwards.

James Bloomer:

Paul McAuley has written novels and stories that I love, Fairyland and Gene Wars are both stories that I often think about. And I really enjoyed this story too. Little Lost Robot starts with fun big robot prose. Boy’s toys stuff perhaps. I loved it. A quick quote from the opening:

“Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world.”

Nice. The story is fast, fun and entertaining and yet ends on a thoughtful note, suddenly casting the story in a different light. With a chunk of hard science thrown in too. Great stuff. My favourite of the nominees.

Karen Burnham:

Paul McAuley’s “Little Lost Robot” is just about the Exact Opposite of the Asimov story he references in the title. Asimov’s lost robot was simply a man-sized robot trying to get away with something, trying to escape. McAuley’s is a planet-sized solar-system-killing war machine… that finds itself with not much left to kill. It finds its way to a solar system and has a conversation with what may be a remnant of humanity. McAuley has done an interesting thing in giving the “robot” four distinct functional avatars: Librarian, Philosopher, Navigator and Tactician. However, the Philosopher got damaged somewhere along the way, and that lack gives and extra frisson of tension to the story.

Lois Tilton:

A superbad big space robot, bigger than an asteroid, smaller than a moon. A self-aware, heavily-armed killer machine on a mission of no return, seeking out the enemy wherever the enemy may be hiding and destroying every last trace of the motherfuckers. It’s a midnight rambler.

But after wiping out all traces of life in this side of the galactic disc, it has run out of targets. Driven by its prime directive, it sends out radio telescopes to search for any signs of life elsewhere. But it is not prepared for what it encounters.

McAuley is clearly re-imagining the sort of autonomous killer machines epitomized by Saberhagen’s Berserkers. But this encounter seems rather anticlimactic and lacking conflict, after all that has gone before.

And my original thoughts:

This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.

So perhaps the most varied reception of any of the nominees — to which, of course, you are invited to add your thoughts. And, since this is the last of the four nominees, feel free to give your opinion on the shortlist as a whole …

18 thoughts on “BSFA nominee: “Little Lost Robot”

  1. “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world”

    The constant riffing on rock music phrases was the one thing about the story that irritated me.

  2. I liked ‘Little Lost Robot’ but when reading I couldn’t help thinking of Saberhagen’s Berserkers, Reynolds’ Inhibitors and Benford’s machines. So, not a new idea, although a new spin on it.

  3. I can’t agree with Martin that this is the winner by default. To my mind it’s the least of the four BSFA nominees, which is not to say I disliked it – it’s a fun piece and very energetically told. I just didn’t feel there was much more to it than that, and thought the (rather heavily telegraphed) ending got bogged down just where it ought to have gone for the big boom.

    I’m not sure which of the four stories I’d choose to win the award. They’re all impressive in one way or another, and all deeply flawed, so really the question is which one’s flaws annoy me the least, to which the answer is probably “Exhalation,” but ask me tomorrow and I might say something else.

  4. I can’t agree with Martin either about something else: far from being pointless, Rickert’s story is the most pointed and accurately aimed of them all, though they all contain varying levels of meh.

    Rickert #1, McAuley #2, Egan #3, Chiang #4. But all impressive.

  5. What is its point though? That a US in which women are murdered for having abortions is bad? It’s not that I’m unconvinced, it’s that I don’t need to be convinced.

  6. I certainly enjoyed this story when I first read it. It’s fun, and I tend to find that pretty much anything written by McAuley is a pleasure to read.
    I think I’d rank it higher than the Egan (who once was my favourite author, and I did quite like Crystal Nights) but lower than the Chiang. I wouldn’t mind if any of them won though.

    And I’ll have to go and read the Rickert!

  7. really the question is which one’s flaws annoy me the least

    Heh, and therein lies the difference between us: you ask which flaws annoy you least, I ask which strengths impress me most. :)

    What is its point though?

    I take it to be asking how easily the horrific can be accepted as normal.

  8. how easily the horrific can be accepted as normal

    Yes, that’s the feeling I took from it. And the intent is not to distance ourselves from the girl – ‘point and laugh’ – but on the contrary to be cast into a state of uncertainty – am I like her?

    I think this is a different intent from the Handmaid’s Tale, which is more of a critique of liberal cultural relativism.

  9. In addition to the influences already mentioned, “Little Lost Robot” seemed to me a sort of bizarro-Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the created, now purposeless, returning to its creator, destroying all in its wake; all the references to the “prime directive” (ha, which here is to kill all humans). It’s all good fun, and like Martin I think it is probably the least flawed of the bunch. But like Abigail, I don’t think it’s much more than that.

    I suppose shortlists like this are one reason I never have much to do with awards: the need to rank things, especially unlike things where there is not a choice that really made me go “wow,” is more annoying to me than empowering. At gunpoint I would probably have the McAuley 4th, the Chiang 3rd, and flip a coin to decide between the Rickert and the Egan. I’m not displeased if that puts me in something of a “human issue stories” camp as opposed to an “abstract concepts” camp, but ideally I’d like a better blend of both, please.

  10. Having read all of them now, I think I’d end up 1) Chiang, 2) Egan, 3) McAuley, 4) Rickert — but given how often we’ve all said things like: “well, since all his/her work is awesome, but this one is a little less awesome than the rest…” I’d say this is a very good crop of nominees.

    Also, I think my default setting would generally be Egan/Chiang in some sort of 1/2 combination; they’re pretty much my favorite authors these days. McAuley and Rickert, both of whom are excellent, would have to really knock my socks off to knock the other two off the top spot, and these two didn’t quite do it for me.

  11. My choice of the four is easy: the Ted Chiang story. Far and away the best, in my view. And the one that I will still clearly remember a year from now.

    I didn’t comment on the Egan story thread, but I agreed with those who commented on the unconvincing characterization.

  12. First of all, let me say how interesting it has been to contribute to a discussion like this for the first time, and see all the different shades of opinion that emerge. It really adds an extra dimension to reading a story.

    I thought there were several better pieces than McAuley’s in that issue of Interzone< (with Paul Tremblay’s ‘The Two-Headed Girl’ the best SF story in the magazine); but ‘LIttle Lost Robot’ is the one on the shortlist, and it is by no means bad.

    Looking back at my original review comments after re-reading the story, Ifind that I didn’t notice ‘Little Lost Robot’ being so ‘dense with information’ this time around (which may just serve to reinforce my contention that McAuley manages exposition well); and the prose seemed more like a single register than a collision of two. But my basic opinion has not changed: fun while I was reading it, but not much more than that.

    To choose a winner: I can’t say that any of the four shortlisted pieces strike me as good enough to be called ‘award-winning’. At a pinch, I might choose the Rickert on the grounds of craft; but I could find a reason to choose any of them — and, to be honest, any such reason would be based on cold logic, which is a poor substitute for loving a story to bits.

  13. I thought the “Little Robot” story was boring.

    The Chiang story is so much better. Chiang is actually getting me to spend money on sci-fi again — I’d almost given up on the genre.

  14. I confess I think “Little Lost Robot” is the odd one out here. Not a bad story, nicely enough done, particularly the gleeful opening, but the ending just didn’t convince me. And it was too obvious.

    The clear best of these is “Exhalation”. “Crystal Nights” is a very fine story which fell just short for me — partly for reasons suggested here… the misfocused opening, the not quite convincing lead character. Still, worthwhile work. I object to “Evidence of Love … ” for exactly the reasons discussed here by Lois, and Abigail, and many others. And finally, in this company “Little Lost Robot” strikes me as slight.

    So my vote for the Chiang story is clear.

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