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 …