Hilary Armstrong is a literature student at U.C. Santa Barbara and a Longreads intern. She recently shared six stories for the science-fiction newbie, and a reading list for Fantasy Newbies.
These stories offer a little breadth, a little curiosity, and a little levity to the idea of artificial life.
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1. There Will Come Soft Rains, Ray Bradbury (1950)
A mechanical house continues working on its automated schedule even after the world has ended. There are two interpretations of this story, and they’re both moving and terrifying. Does this house feel sad that it is no longer useful? Or is the setting itself what inspires tears?
2. Satisfaction Guaranteed, Isaac Asimov (1951)
This piece is a fan favorite (especially among the ladies). It explores the dynamics of robot/human romance—for once, everything is about the betterment of the woman; she is not objectified. Due to Asimov’s mathematician bent, the robot is a logical being from beginning to end. This is a triumph of a story.
3. Article of Faith, Mike Resnik (2009)
A robot wishes to become a member of a Christian church. This could have easily gone in a preachy direction, but while it is dialogue-heavy and asks the standard “big” questions, Christianity isn’t vilified—only bigots are. It’s rare to read a science fiction story that views religion with anything other than scorn, and for that reason I respect this story most.
4. 800 ms, David Taub (2012)
Incredible worldbuilding, fascinating “What if” questions, and a protagonist I wanted to understand within one hundred words. If that doesn’t sell you, consider instead the approach to synthetic life vs. organic life beyond the basic “which is better” question.
5. The Pinocchio Complex, Sarina Dorie (2013)
I’m a sucker for updated fairy tales, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of this particular iteration. Geppetto the puppet-maker is now a roboticist, and he is called to serve a most peculiar client. I won’t spoil any of the twists for you.
6. Any Face You Like, Gregg Jansen (2013)
A lighter story about the future of the door-to-door salesman. The narration is clever, and the perspective on gender doesn’t come across as condemning or preachy.
If you were hoping for a little horror on this list, look no further than the champion of the genre: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” featuring a terrifying mechanized antagonist whom I wouldn’t call a robot. Be warned: this story still keeps me up at night.