Humans, and especially science fiction fans, have a love-hate relationship with robots. We love the idea of robot helpers to reduce the drudgery of menial tasks, yet complain of them taking our jobs. We dream of robots assisting us in colonizing space, but create apocalyptic scenarios of robot rebellion here on Earth. Perhaps it is in human nature to suspect that every advancement comes at a cost, and be hesitant to transfer the qualities that have put us at the top of the food chain into heartless beings of plastic and metal, no matter how many safeguards we might build into their design.
Isaac Asimov has addressed much of this unease through the Three Laws of Robotics, familiar to even the most casual readers throughout the world: a robot may not cause or allow harm a human; must obey orders from a human; and must protect its own existence. As a result, murderous Terminators and Robocalypse nightmare scenarios notwithstanding, most of us have accepted the idea that someday soon, sentient beings not of human flesh will share this planet and become our partners, if not friends.
Yet there are limits to this acceptance. Today, we might be comfortable with a robot maid, waiter, or bank teller. I am, in fact, ardently wishing for a robot maid right now and am even willing to take a risk of it becoming homicidal if it means a guaranteed clean house (don’t judge me till you have SEEN my house, OK?). Harder to accept are robots in positions that requires judgment rather than pre-programmed intelligence—doctors, lawyers, teachers—although an equivalent of judgment can in fact be programmed, and the jokes about certain professions in this context pretty much write themselves. But with continuing improvement in robotic technology, we would probably get there soon enough.
What about a robot priest, then?
That’s different, is it not? For one, how do you program something that on its surface is the very opposite of reason and logic? And even if you could, are the Three Laws, written by an atheist and pertaining strictly to the physical, suffice to guide a robot intended to focus on the spiritual? To quote a typical mad scientist, “What can possibly go wrong?” On the flip side, what if it actually goes right? What might we learn? What might we lose? Is there anything at all we could gain?
Enter God, Robot—a mind-blowingly ambitious project from Castalia House, that serves as a perfect demonstration of the value of quality small press publishers to fiction, and genre fiction in particular. Aside from tackling a theme that few, if any, writers had either the inclination or the ability to address, this book takes short works from eight separate writers and combines them into a compelling, coherent and truly unique tale.
For all the combined talent of the contributors, the bulk of the credit goes to Anthony Marchetta, who gets top billing as the editor, but whose main contribution is providing the framework and connecting pieces of the story and making sure all the contributors’ voices come together as a whole. The setup of an old man, accused of crimes against humanity, sharing historical research with the detective who had finally tracked him down, serves as more than a hook to the reader. It allows for greater freedom of structure, explains differences in style between the chapters, provides an excuse for what would normally be considered plot holes, and allows for a couple of side stories that are just there because they’re interesting, but don’t necessarily advance the plot. In lesser hands, this could have easily become a total mess, and given my natural suspicion of all things “experimental,” I approached it with a large dose of skepticism, but I was not, in the end, disappointed. Actually, spoiler alert: at the end, I teared up, which doesn’t happen to me a whole lot.
Moving on to the individual stories, the first two, Modified and Cover Up, both authored by Mr. Marchetta, are fairly light and humorous in tone even as they give the first hint that the issues behind combining robots and theology are anything but light and can lead to some not-so-funny consequences.
Modified centers on the first “theobot,” a robot created with the two built-in theological laws in addition to the three classical ones. The new laws are:
1. Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
While intuitive to a human, even a non-believer, the very first law trips up the robot’s brain because it is not obvious how an abstraction like “God” can be loved. Cover Up continues with the theme, demonstrating that the traditional Three Laws, when taken literally, can collide with the two additional theological laws in a manner unforeseen by even the smartest humans. Interestingly enough, it falls to the atheist scientists to resolve both problems, and most of the humor comes from them trying to think of faith from a point of view that is foreign to their overly logical, science-dedicated minds. The author manages a fine balance of not denigrating either atheism or faith, making us chuckle at the setup rather than the characters, whether robot or human.
The Theology of Robotics by MJ Marzo points out another issue. Any religious denomination liberal enough to experiment with robot clergy is unlikely to take every word of the Bible precisely at face value. Thus, a sentient robot, having been given free will, has to make a decision: compromise his interpretation of the sacred text, or… Well, you just have to read to find out.
Daily Bread by Steve Rzasa is a rather endearing story of a theobot who wishes fulfill the duty of taking Communion, but lacks the means of doing so properly. As a non-organic being, a robot has no need for food and thus does not possess a digestive system. Alex, a human scientist (once again, an atheist) has a choice of risking his job or fulfilling the deepest desire of a friend who had saved his life. While not addressing new theological issues, this chapter contributes to the overall storyline by demonstrating the possibility of deep friendship and loyalty between man and robot, which is perhaps even more revolutionary than the idea of robot priests.
The Council of Pasadena by MJ Marzo is the first chapter that starts hinting at the darker developments to come, even if we ignore statements to that effect in the connecting pieces (Frames). What happens if the theobots, having come to certain conclusions about the nature of God and religion as a result of free will and diligent study, decide that they are superior to humans by virtue of not possessing Original Sin? Would they declare themselves superior to humans and attempt to take control? As before, it falls to the atheist scientists we’ve met at the beginning to solve the problem of demonstrating to the robots that they are, in fact, just as prone to sin as their human creators. This chapter is still somewhat funny, and the readers should enjoy it while it lasts because…
An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright is the most disturbing story, by far, essential as it is to the overall tale. Even though both the ending and the plot twist are given away in the preceding Frame, I kept hoping I did in fact mis-read the clues because surely the story could not end that way… It is satisfying and uplifting in the way that stories of the Saints are satisfying and uplifting to a Christian, but I must admit that it makes for a hard reading, start to finish.
Felix Culpa by Josh Young is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, if I had to pick just one. Without going into much detail because it would require spoilers both from this chapter and the earlier material, I will mention only the central dilemma. If it were possible to program piety, love and goodness into a sentient being’s DNA, what would be the consequences? Is it possible to be good if you’re physically, by your very nature down to the cellular level, forced into it? How would we feel knowing that all the best impulses and thoughts are never truly our own? This story answers one of the serious objections to religion, namely why the Creator allows for the existence of sin, by showing the spiritual crisis of a population that is, theoretically at least, incapable of sinning. While this topic was already presented to us in The Council of Pasadena, here it is approached from a different perspective, and is deep and touching rather than mostly funny.
Infinite Search by EJ Shumak is another chapter notable for the exploring the depth of a robot/human loyalty and friendship. When a robot’s commander is severely injured in a way that cannot be healed by present human technology, the robot places all hopes in the ultimate Healer. Again, the robot mind takes the literal interpretation and attempts to physically bring the injured man to that place where pain no longer exists, to the Being that heals all wounds. And so the two travel … and travel … further and further, faster and faster, to parts unknown. Those familiar with the original ending to the Orson Scott Card Shadow series when it came to “solving” the problem of Bean’s fast approaching death, will know that the concept has basis in science. Here, the reader is left to wonder who, or what, caused the commander to reappear alive and well in another time period (that is mentioned explicitly in the preceding Frame and therefore is not a spoiler).
The Logfile by Vox Day is a bit of a detour, a cautionary tale of a theobot placed, by accident, in a position of power over human lives. Let’s just say that since theobots don’t do anything half-way, when one of them goes bad, he goes spectacularly bad. This story has all the makings of a good horror movie, made all the creepier by being told from the theobot’s point of view the entire time. The only reason it does not take the Most Disturbing prize from all the chapters is because John C. Wright’s story has already claimed that one.
Fortunately for any despairing reader, there is one more chapter left. The Ring of Sounding Brass by L. Jagi Lamplighter is a charming tale of a young, talented woman scientist who is working diligently on the best way to commit genocide. Yes, you read it right, and trust me, the story truly is charming. I do love the editor’s choice to place this particular tale at the end, especially following the unrelenting darkness of the previous chapter. Coming back to the question I posed at the beginning of this review, “Is there anything at all we can gain?” Can a theobot teach us something we have forgotten? With all of humanity’s flaws and errors and propensity to self-destruction, should we primarily fear technological creations, or does the worst threat come from our own kind? The story does not provide the full answer, but it shows a glimpse of what it might be.
And so, we come to the Epilogue, or which I will not speak except, as previously mentioned, the last paragraph made me cry. If you were paying attention throughout, while you could not possibly imagine The Big Twist, you would still guess the gist of the ending. And it is beautiful. God, Robot is not a re-telling of an Asimov classic, nor is it a gimmicky story of science gone wrong. It is a tale of what makes us human, what makes us strive and fail and overcome. The reason so many adults are drawn to science fiction is because in showing us different possibilities, it reveals the truth we don’t always notice in everyday life. God, Robot succeeds in that regard, and therefore I can highly recommend it to dedicated science fiction fans as well to those who want to understand what makes this genre both special and timeless.