Apex Book Company will begin a Kickstarter campaign on February 21st to raise funds for a new anthology, Robotic Ambitions. I don’t usually join in campaigns like this, but Apex is an important institution in the SFF world. I’d like to help make this book possible — I have to add that I have no financial incentive whatsoever in doing this. The anthology is edited by Lesley Conner & Jason Sizemore, with cover art by Vincent Lefevre.
The core list of contributors includes Elliott Wink, Marie Vibbert, Lavie Tidhar, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Izzy Wasserstein, Danny Cherry Jr., Renan Bernado, and Premee Mohamed. That’s an impressive group, and the editors have released one story to give an example of what they want to achieve. It’s Elliott Wink’s “A Still Life”, which I’m reviewing below. Here’s a summary from Apex of what the anthology is all about:
Whether striving to protect the family they’ve chosen, searching for meaning amid the chaos of the world, or questioning what it is that makes one alive, robotic ambition can mean many different things. From robots and AI to sentient mechanical devices, this anthology will explore what it means to be sentient and mechanical. Join Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner as they peel back the metal and find out what lies at the center of Robotic Ambitions.
“A Still Life” is a good introduction to these themes in a gentle way. The story opens at a San Francisco hotel, The Pierce, in 2201. Addie, the front desk clerk, narrates and lets us know right away that there have been no guests at this five star hotel for twenty-six years. Nevertheless, they keep their post at all times, beaming their long-perfected smile and checking the phone messages and email at precise 15 minute intervals. There are never any messages. Nor has the owner, Maurice, appeared in all that time. Still, they and Lydia, the housemaid, stick to their routines. Lydia is always surprised at how clean the rooms are, and Addie must always remind them that this is because there are no guests.
Addie tells us a lot about their smile because they tried so hard to perfect it. To get it just right, they studied sitcoms of the last centuries, but especially celebrity interviews. These gave them plentiful examples of how to smile in a way that was welcoming but not overly friendly or imposing. The smile is one of their finest achievements.
The story then jumps back to 2170 to the moment when Addie first opened their eyes as a sentient robot. Their maker Trevor helped them choose a face that they could see when they thought of what they looked like with eyes closed. As the story alternates between the two time periods, it’s not hard to see where it’s headed, but what is most interesting is Addie’s gradual change in how they think of who they are.
After waking one morning, Addie dares to break the routines by putting on clothes that are “not right for a Friday.” They practice smiling in the mirror and wonder if anyone could fall in love with them, if only for a moment until realizing that they were a machine. They watch episodes of I Love Lucy, whom they love and hate because Lucy never seems to become what she could be. Through these observations and thoughts, we see Addie gradually form new ideas about a different future and what they might do that could take them outside the rigid boundaries of life at The Pierce.
“A Still Life” is a wonderfully humane story about a sentient android beginning to think about its possible future in a world that seems to have abandoned them. It raises interesting questions about ideas of selfhood, personality and agency from the perspective on an android who wants to find purpose even after the life it was trained for no longer seems to matter to anyone. I can only hope that the other stories planned for Robotic Ambitions take these themes in even more interesting directions.
If you’re interested in helping launch Robotic Ambitions, you can sign up to be notified about the Kickstarter campaign, which launches on February 21, 2023. They are also accepting submissions for stories and have guidelines posted at the Apex site.