Robot SCIFI Books for Anyone


robot-scifi-books

I am often asked for book recommendations for people who aren't scifi geeks: here is a list of scifi/fantasy robot books that when I recommend one of them, people write back to say they loved it. The list is a mixture of old and new, technothrillers and intellectual literature, and each one is suitable for any book lover, not just for hard core scifi fans. The books generally touch on one or more real science topics, which are explored in the RTSF postings. If you are interested in a book or movie (or the robot science in them), you can look it up by name on the SCIFI REVIEWS page. I've also included one non-fiction book on AI and robotics- Rebooting AI. And don't forget about Robotics Through Science Fiction: AI Explained Through Six Classic Robot Short Stories and Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov's I, Robot Stories- they use scifi to explain real world robotics to general audiences.


Books and Novellas


The Murderbot Diaries (series) by Martha Wells. It’s the Dilbert of robot scifi- remember Bishop the good android in Aliens? Imagine his POV and David Spade worthy snarky internal dialog as he tries to save clueless scientists from aliens and evil corporations. There's a bit of truth about automatic governors and software engineering. Start with the first in the series All Systems Red.


The Electric State and Tales from the Loop and its sequel Things from the Flood by Simon Stålenhag. These are hybrid graphic novels equal parts text and illustrations that are loosely coupled. The books form a sort of an escape room challenge in figuring out what is really going on. The streaming version of Tales from the Loop on Amazon is only loosely based on the novels, so if you didn’t like the series you may love the books. Everyone I know, in any demographic- not just anime/graphic novel fans, who has read the books has been blown away. They touch on telepresence, automation, and autonomy.


Lock In and Head On (series) by John Scalzi. 20-minutes-into-the-future, a disabled FBI agent, one of the many victims of the Hayden’s syndrome pandemic, uses telepresence robots to solve crimes. Chris (whose gender we never know) navigates life with a genial, funny, and pragmatic attitude. Not as ROTL as the Murderbot Diaries but great fun as Chris makes a delightful companion solving mysteries. Wonderful introduction to the practical challenges of telepresence.


Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. This is a recent best seller, short listed for several highbrow literary awards, and a book club favorite. It’s not listed as scifi but the book, which describes the unintended consequences of a Furby-like robot, is a scarily plausible outcome of consumer robotics. You could safely give this to someone who likes Big Little Lies and psychological fiction. See the Science Robotics article for a discussion of the science.


Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill. Think of a Mad Max post-apocalyptic world but with a classic Western vibe, where robots and AI as the last survivors duking it out among themselves. It's sort of like the Johnny Depp movie Ringo in that it shouldn't work for a general audience but it does. And it touches on the issues of robot architectures. There’s a prequel called Day Zero, but start with Sea of Rust.


Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. This is best of breed for robot uprisings, combining hard science (yeah, you'll never look at self-driving cars in the same way again) and action adventure using the Studs Terkel oral history style of presentation that created that whole genre of literary fiction. The book is really about people, not robots, and makes you care and see the fight for control of the world from their perspective as if you were reading a Herman Wouk WWII book. The sequel Robogenesis is less suitable for a general audience, more for The Walking Dead fans.



Short Story Collections


Exhalation: Stories and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Cheatsheet: just get anything by Ted Chiang. These two short story collections are not all are about robots but each story is exquisite from a literary perspective, a technology perspective, and the whole Black Mirror surprising twist emotional impact perspective. The title story Stories of Your Life was made into the movie Arrival.


We, Robots edited by Allan Kaster. Be warned, there are a godzillion books and anthologies named "We, Robots" or "We, Robot" but this anthology IMHO is the best. Each story is well-written and thought provoking about the real science, definitely my favorite anthology. Even though they are about robots, the stories work for anyone. See the links to the science behind each story. This is audiobook only format.



Fantasy


The Alchemy Wars (series) by Ian Tregillis. A great blend of alternative history, religion, and science. Imagine a steampunk world in which Christiaan Huygens used alchemy to create low cost humanoid robots. The robots give the Dutch an huge economic advantage, leading to them controlling the New World and most of Europe. Meanwhile, the Catholic minority is trying to save robots, and their robot souls, from the de facto slavery imposed by the Calvinist majority. A really inventive, alternate history where robotics is framed as part of an ongoing Protestant Reformation religious war between free will and predestination. I loved Charlie Jane Anders’ quote “I’ve never rooted for the Catholic Church as much as I did while reading this book.” And a great introduction to ethics.


Non-fiction Books


Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis. There are lots of books about the robot revolution, AI, and machine learning written by scientists. Most of the scientists aren't actually experts in computer science or robotics, instead are physicists or social scientists offering their opinions. This one is written by real experts and does a fine job explaining how AI, machine learning, and robots really work plus give a history of the field, which helps frame why that AI uprising is unlikely. Don't worry, we can misuse AI and over-trust self-driving cars but those are self-inflicted wounds. The tone is a bit of Jon Stewart or Dennis Miller, smart and unafraid to poke and prod the sacred cows of media and venture capitalists.