Hugo Nominee: “Evil Robot Monkey”

… aka the penultimate discussion. The story is here — and at 942 words, if you’ve got time to read this post, you’ve got time to read the story (is it the shortest piece ever to be nominated for a Hugo?).

Abigail Nussbaum:

Misunderstood robots also appear in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey,” which beats “Article of Faith” hands down in terms of prose and its ability to elicit emotion, but which also isn’t really a story at all but piece of one, a thousand-word vignette in which Sly, an uplifted monkey, rails against his handlers and their refusal to ackowledge his personhood. Kowal is a good enough writer that Sly’s plight is compelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Evil Robot Monkey” doesn’t do anything beyond establishing that plight, or that it does so in ways that are both trite and familiar. Once again, this premise, of artificial creations gaining a measure of personhood only to see it, and their desires and aspirations, denied, has been at the heart of a significant portion of classic science fiction, and in order to be worthy of a Hugo nomination I think a story ought to do more than simply tip its hat to these works and then stop. In a way, I find Kowal’s nomination even more baffling than Resnick’s. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn’t amassed that kind of following yet, and it’s hard to imagine a non-story like “Evil Robot Monkey” arousing enough passion to make it onto the ballot on its own rather flimsy merits.

Rich Horton:

At less than a thousand words this must be one of the shortest Hugo nominees ever. It’s about an uplifted chimp, doing pottery but forced to be on exhibition and thus driven to a rage by the taunts of schoolchildren. Quite simple, but convincing and bitterly moving.


Extremely short story about monkey working with potter’s wheel. Pretty good, but nothing special. I really don’t understand why this story was nominated over so many other good stories, I can’t find it special in any way. Nice little mood piece, but that’s it.

Ian Sales:

The title is a silly joke – the monkey in the story is a live Chimpanzee. A “smart” chimp, in fact. Who makes pots out of clay. The story is around four pages long in the mass market paperback Solaris anthology. It is mildly amusing and mostly inconsequential. It’s not even the best story in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

Matt Hilliard:

An unusally short story that despite being short manages to have a bit more to say than the other nominated monkey story. Like basically any story of this length, it has one thing to say. It does a pretty good job saying it. I don’t think that’s really award-worthy, though.

John DeNardo:

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” (originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 edited by George Mann) is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.

Charlie Jane Anders:

…the story is awesomely depressing. It’s a great examination of art and the creative process, and what it feels like to be an artist who’s looked at merely as a curiosity or as a momentary amusement for child barbarians. And art as a containment device for impotent rage.

Joe Sherry:

Oh, this is a beautiful and heartbreaking story. In fewer than 1000 words Mary Robinette Kowal just killed me. The opening paragraphs paints a picture of a monkey in a pen trying to do nothing more than make pottery but because Sly is a monkey, people think it is okay to hit the glass walls of his pen. The pottery brings the monkey peace. The other aspect of the story that wrecks me is the conversation between Sly and Vern, the handler, about what happened and why and what the consequences are.

Damn, “Evil Robot Monkey” is good. It’s so short, but the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. The story lingers.

So: lingering, or forgettable? Inconsequential, or accomplished?

20 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “Evil Robot Monkey”

  1. Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys.

    Even at 942 words, the story has room for a touch of clunky telling-not-showing: ‘“I’m not like the other chimps.” He pointed to the implant in his head. ‘ Egregious, that.

  2. Hmm.

    I’m conflicted

    Firstly, the ape psychology that dominates the first half reminded me of one of David Brin’s uplift books, only in a more bloodless and precious way.

    Secondly, the depiction of the creative process is rather distasteful. I initially took the story to be a parody of the creative process. But going by the reactions you cite, I may be alone in this.

    Here’s a chimp who likes to make pots. The only insight we get into why he enjoys this is the fact that he likes to get his hands dirty “Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers”. When someone disturbs him he reacts in a savage and obscene manner. I picture him as one of the poets in the third series of Blackadder : A chimp in a big frilly shirt screeching “Be quiet Sir! Can you not see that we are dying!”. His complaint is not that he was about to make a breakthrough but that “He just wanted to make pottery”.

    This is a picture of the artist as a solipsistic and primitive narcissist. A creature whose desire for self-expression is entirely motivated by the basest of instincts but because he is expressing himself, he demands respect from the world. He sees it as the duty of the world to allow him to indulge himself with his finger moistening.

    If you wanted to take the piss out of all the wanna be artists out there with nothing to say and a huge sense of self-righteous entitlement, you probably couldn’t come up with a more precisely targeted critique. They’re not misunderstood artists, they’re chimps playing with mud.

    “I’m not like the other chimps.” Sure you’re not.

    Read in those terms. I like the story. It’s bitter and coming from an author, it has a nicely self-deprecating edge to it. However, if one allows one’s sympathies to be drawn to the chimp…

  3. My problem is that I think we are supposed to sympathise with the chimp.

    Aside from the rather maudlin tone that pervades the story there’s something rather dismissive in the way that some of the other characters are described.

    “One of them swung his arms aping Sly crudely. Sly bared his teeth, knowing these people would take it as a grin, but he meant it as a threat.” = Ignorant and crude.

    Meanwhile the story’s authority figure Matilda has someone else do her dirty work for her. She doesn’t understand the chimp ad then punishes him for the results of that lack of understanding.

    ““It was Delilah. She thought you wouldn’t mind because the other chimps didn’t.”

  4. Ian, I can believe that more people read it as a result of Scalzi promoting Kowal; but those readers still had to like it enough to nominate it. So the interesting thing, to me, is to try to pin down what it is people like about it.

  5. I think it’s possible to write more words analysing this story than the story’s actual word count, and still not understand why it ended up on the shortlist.

  6. I think Adam makes an interesting point, in that it’s not just that the story is so short that it’s just a snapshot, but that that snapshot isn’t terrifically accomplished. What’s interesting about this, to me, is that it raises the question of whether a different snapshot – one that truly was as exceptional as the positive reviews above would have us believe “Evil Robot Monkey” is – would be deserving of a Hugo slot.

    In other words, is “Evil Robot Monkey” an inexplicable nomination because it’s so short, or because it’s unremarkable?

    Jonathan, I don’t doubt that we’re meant to empathize with Sly, and though I find your reading more interesting than the actual story, I’m not sure it’s a fair one. Sly’s isn’t claiming to be an artist. He’s claiming to be a person. It’s that personhood, not his right to self-expression, that is being denied.

  7. @Abigail: In a way, I find Kowal’s nomination even more baffling than Resnick’s. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn’t amassed that kind of following yet

    She did win the Campbell Award for Best New Author last year, beating out such top-selling genre novelists as Lynch and Abercrombie, so she clearly has amassed some name recognition among the core Hugo voters based on her short fiction. So I don’t know if she has the level of following that Resnick does, but I suspect she may have his kind of following.

    @Niall: So the interesting thing, to me, is to try to pin down what it is people like about it.

    In addition to the above (i.e., I can imagine some voters nominating it on name recognition alone), the story is short (easier to read = more readers = more votes), trite (apparently this is a good thing), and sticks it to authority (heck, sticks it to both a female authority and to youth). I mean, what’s not to like?

  8. Er, strike “a” from “sticks it to both a female authority and to youth” in what I wrote above, as in fact both female authority figures in the story are derided.

  9. Abigail,

    I’m not sure that it is his personhood that’s being denied. I agree that there’s a form of story similar to this one in which that type of thing takes place (the Robot Pathos stories I mentioned on the Resnick thread) but I don’t think that anyone is denying that Sly’s a person. They’re just saying that if he wants to be angrily abusive and obscene then there will be consequences (which is what it means to live in a society).

    I think the character is arguing that he should be exempt from these kinds of consequences because of what he is and what he does and this is why the story strikes me as being about a stroppy pseud throwing a tantrum.

    As for why people like it : I think that a lot of SF fans see themselves as at the very least free-thinkers and quite possibly artists and so a story of an artist oppressed by an authority figure for refusing to play ball with idiots it bound to prove popular.

    In that sense the story is quite sappily manipulative – We never learn who the female authority figure is or by what authority she takes Sly’s clay away. We never really learn what Sly is doing in this place or why he has been uplifted.

  10. Evil Robot Critic

    He just wanted to read a story.
    Vern poked his head in. He signed, “You okay?”
    Sly shook his head emphatically.
    “Sorry. We should have warned you that uneducated readers were coming.”
    “And I’m a critic. I know.”
    “It was Delilah. She thought you wouldn’t mind because the other critics didn’t.”
    “I’m not like the other critics.” He pointed to the implant in his head. “Maybe Delilah needs one of these. Seems like she needs help thinking.”
    “Delilah thinks you should be disciplined. She wants me to take away the book since you used it for an anger display.” Vern stopped at the door. “I’m not cleaning up your mess.”
    The book Sly had thrown lay in pile of pages.
    He waited until the door closed then loped over and scooped the book up. It was not much, but it was enough for now.

  11. Unfortunately pretty much forgettable for me. In that I had actually read it in the Solaris collection and forgotten.
    It’s nice enough, and certainly short enough, but it doesn’t actually do anything.
    Sure, a story doesn’t need to do anything new as such, so I suppose people’s positive reactions, as outlined above, are because it has an emotional resonance. But if you’ve heard it before everywhere from PK Dick to, heck, Asimov, you’d want (I would think) something a little revelatory – something a little “Oh! I hadn’t thought of it that way before!” maybe?

  12. Sorry, only commenting so I can get notifications of other comments. Totally fascinating discussion. I’m always interested in what other people get, or don’t get, out of my stuff.

  13. Steve: presumably you are trying to make some point about either the story or this discussion but I’m unable to discern what it is?

    So, er, Sly is a critic. He is also apparently deaf. He has been institutionalised (imprisoned?) by Delilah, along with several other poets. Delilah who has also put an implant in his head (to what purpose? to “help him think”?). Some uneducated readers (slightly oxymoronic but we’ll let that pass) come to visit him (why? education outreach programme?) and this drives him into a rage (why? presumed inferiority to the other implant-less critics?). Oh well, at least he avoids punishment and has a book.


  14. I’ve read the Solaris anthology that this story appeared in previously, but other than it being very short, I couldn’t recall much of it so I had to read it again.

    I’m not surprised I couldn’t remember much of it. It’s not so much a story as a scene, a fragment, a writing exercise. It then compounds this by trying to be cute and failing to be memorable.

    Short short stories can be very very good. Fredric Brown was probably the master of the form, for one. But ERM has something missing from it that Brown’s best stories don’t.

    So I’m surprised to see this made it as a Hugo nominee. Indeed, as could be inferred from what I’ve said above, I didn’t even think it was the best story in the Solaris anthology.

  15. Martin: It was an attempt at humor, apparently dead on arrival. Apologies to all for stinking up the place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s