One From the Bucket List: The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection edited by Allan Kaster

One From the Bucket List: The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection edited by Allan Kaster

The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection (Infinivox, November 21, 2021). Cover by Maurizio Manzieri

I’ve been reading and writing about Year’s Best volumes for decades, and I’ve covered a lot of them, including anthologies by Terry Carr, Don Wollheim, Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss, Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan, Rich Horton, Neil Clarke, and many others.

So I hope you can appreciate what a pleasure it was to receive a copy of Allan Kaster’s The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection in the mail in December, a book that fulfilled a long-held dream. It’s the first Year’s Best to include a story of mine: “The Ambient Intelligence,” originally published in the October 2020 issue of John Joseph Adams’ Lightspeed magazine.

[Click the images for giant robot versions.]

The Robots of Gotham paperback-small The Robots of Gotham paperback-back-small

The Robots of Gotham (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2018). Cover design by Mark R. Robinson

“The Ambient Intelligence” wasn’t just my first appearance in a Year’s Best; it was also my first piece of fiction to appear outside Black Gate. It was published under the name Todd McAulty, the pseudonym I’d used for a decade to help fill pages in the print version of Black Gate. I didn’t take those fiction efforts very seriously in those days. At least not until they started getting unexpected critical attention, and Locus magazine proclaimed “Todd McAulty is Black Gate‘s great discovery.”

Admittedly, that was a little awkward. I’d spent years using the magazine to promote a host of emerging writers; it felt a little self-serving to discover it had also become a vehicle of self-promotion, however inadvertently. But reader email asking for more continued to pour in; Todd McAulty was our breakout star, and the temptation to try something with a large canvas was just too tempting.

The result was my first novel The Robots of Gotham, published under the McAulty name by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2018. It was a lot of fun to put together, and I still dream of the day when I’ll have the time to finish the sequel.

“The Ambient Intelligence” grew out of that effort. It uses the same setting as The Robots of Gotham, a war-torn and occupied Chicago taking the first steps towards recovery after a robot apocalypse. It is, however, completely standalone.

The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: First Annual Collection (Infinivox, May 28, 2019). Cover by Maurizio Manzieri

I rarely recall the original spark of inspiration for most stories, but I vividly remember this one. I was looking out at the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan during an overlong meeting on the 25th floor on North Clark in downtown Chicago, trying to picture what it might look like after a massive robot engineering project has cracked the Earth’s crust under Lake Michigan and boiled off much of the lake. The story focuses on two characters: Barry Simcoe, a displaced Canadian, and his friend Zircon Border, a war machine who’s come to Chicago as part of an international peacekeeping effort.

When I put together my New Treasures articles I always enjoy tossing in a few short reviews, and I hope you’ll indulge me if I do the same here. Karen Burnham included the story in her Recommended Reading list at Locus Online:

The lead science fiction story in October’s Light­speed really had me turning the pages. “The Ambient Intelligence” by Todd McAulty imagines America decades from now, denuded by climate change and occasionally invaded by foreign powers. Now something appears to be trying to boil off Lake Michigan. Barry Simone is working with a clean-up organization after one of the wars, and he’s managed to stash a suit of high-end power armor. One of the AIs he works with, Zircon Border, realizes that Simone is the best bet to deal with a mining robot that’s gone rogue, killing some humans before retreating to a newly revealed shipwreck. The relationship between Simone and Zircon is well drawn and the adventure as they find the robot and discover why it’s gone rogue is entirely engaging.

Tara Grimravn at Tangent Online wrote:

Barry Simcoe is on a mission by AGRT, an international peacekeeping organization, to disable a gigantic robot destroying large portions of Chicago… McAulty’s SF story is a great read… The ending doesn’t disappoint either. The characters are quite well-done, and I especially liked the interactions between Simcoe and True Pacific. Give this one a read!

At SF Short Stories Paul Fraser wrote:

We learn about the post-collapse world that Simcoe lives in, and his mission, which is to take out a sixty ton killer robot called True Pacific. The robot is currently hiding in a wrecked ship but, when Simcoe arrives there, the robot comes out to kill him. There is then an exciting fight scene in the mudpools… It was refreshing to read a well-paced piece of action SF with an intriguing background and a sense of humour.

And finally, Charles Payseur has one of my favorite reviews at Quick Sip Reviews.

On the dude-fights-giant-robot side of things, the story works quite well. The action is well rendered, the choreography nothing to complain about… But even with his friendly AI whispering in his ear to just take out the “rogue” robot, Simcoe manages to do some listening, and starts to suspect that things are not what they seem. And I love the way the trust works in this story, the times when Simcoe chooses to trust the robot he’s sent to kill because things don’t really add up, and the way that plays out for him. No one seems to want him to find out what’s Really Going On, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stumble right in just by trying to do the decent thing. I get the feeling this is only the tip of the iceberg on a much larger story, but it’s an intriguing and very entertaining episode in its own right, and it makes for a neat introduction to the world and the characters.

You can read the story in its entirety online in the October 2020 issue of Lightspeed.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2020 (Dell Magazines, cover by Sdecort) and Entanglements: Tomorrow’s
Lovers, Families, and Friends (The MIT PRess, 2020, cover by Tatiana Plakhova). Both edited by Sheila Williams

Allan Kaster has edited over two dozen Year’s Best volumes, including The Year’s Top Short SF Novels (8 volumes), The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories (5), and The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction (10). This is the second volume of The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories; the first one came out in 2019.

The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection has a terrific line up, including novellas by Will McIntosh and Ian Tregillis, and stories by James Patrick Kelly, Ken Liu, Brenda Cooper, Ray Nayler, Ursula Vernon, and Ted Kosmatka.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

“Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship” by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July-August 2020)
“50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know” by Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2020)
“A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, 2020)
“Father” by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July-August 2020)
“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)
“Your Boyfriend Experience” by James Patrick Kelly (Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, 2020)
“The Beast Adjoins” by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July-August 2020)
“Go. Now. Fix.” by Timons Esaias (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January-February 2020)
“The Ambient Intelligence” John O’Neill [as by Todd McAulty] (Lightspeed, October 2020)
“Sparklybits” by Nick Wolven (Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, 2020)
“Callme and Mink” by Brenda Cooper (Clarkesworld, October 2020)
“Rover” by A. T. Sayre (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March-April 2020)
“Come the Revolution” by Ian Tregillis (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020)

I note that nearly half of the stories contained (six out of 13) come from books or magazines edited by Sheila Williams — including two from her anthology Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, and no less than three from the July/August 2020 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. If you’re a robot fan, you may want to track down that issue. Best of all it, it also has an acclaimed novella by Black Gate‘s own Derek Künsken! (Since the issue came out at the height of the pandemic-fueled distribution collapse at in early 2020, finding it may be more challenging than usual. I never found one at newstands, and had to pay $20 for a single issue purchase at Amazon to get a copy.

The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories: Second Annual Collection was published by Infinivox on November 22, 2021. It is 309 pages, priced at $17.99 in paperback, and $5.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Maurizio Manzieri.

See all our recent coverage of new releases by Black Gate authors here.

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