Eating Robots by Stephen Oram (Silverwood Books, £6.99)
IN FEWER than 150 pages, Stephen Oram combines the sharp edginess of a JG Ballard with the vaulting inventiveness of a modernist Ovid.
Eating Robots is a fizzingly inventive collection of nearly three dozen short stories from an author rapidly establishing himself as the leading voice on how technology may determine the ways in which societies and individuals are structured in the years to come.
As if he has smashed a crystal ball, Oram offers up sharp and dangerous fragments of various potential near futures that explore the possible relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence (AI).
The author’s concision creates more tension in the reader’s mind in a few paragraphs —some of the stories here are only a few tantalising sentences in length — than most manage in a whole novel.
An overriding theme is that the ever-closer convergence between humanity and AI will have possible outcomes undreamt of by today’s technologists.
Oram is too original a writer to construct a series of dystopian visions alone. There is a lot of dark, if not ironic, humour, as in The Thrown-Away Things, a Toy Story for adults detailing the revenge plans of discarded domestic appliances.
Oh To Be a Bee is an almost whimsical story of the metamorphosis of an upwardly mobile insect, while The Mythical Moss is an example of tales involving genuinely hilarious, if somewhat hallucinogenic, scenarios.
But inevitably, most of the stories tend towards the dysfunctional if not completely transgressive.
In Little Modern Miracles, set in a Mad Max-esque world, a man infected with a mysterious virus and ineligible for treatment in his mathematically stratified society turns the tables on some smooth snake-oil salespeople.
And, in The Downward Spiral of the Disenfranchised Consumer, Oram shows how a seemingly utopian ideal — that of universal income — becomes a curse when businesses won’t sell you anything because your profile identifies you as a brand risk.
I Want to Be Pure For Him is a heartrending account of a woman’s quest to unlearn all her previous memories to prepare herself for her new lover, while Make Me As You See Me sees two male lovers scorning societal norms and combining as mutually supportive Siamese twins.
Oram is the least didactic writer around. He’s a thoughtful entertainer and In Eating Robots he unblinkingly presents possible scenarios without explicitly suggesting the rightness or wrongness of each.
And he provokes us to ask ourselves whether these are desirable or unforgivably corrupt futures — it is up to us to decide how to respond. nIf you want to contribute to the discussion about Eating Robots, visit stephenoram.net/eatingrobots/provocations/discussion