AI Fiction

This is going to become my authoritative list of recommended science-fiction that involves Artificial Intelligence characters. I realize that it will become unwieldy.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

This is probably my favorite. I say “probably” because Murderbot is a very close second.

The protagonist of this space opera was once the central AI of a large starship, but is now contained within an augmented humanoid biological body. We get to experience the multitasking and multiple simultaneous points of a ship-wide AI, and the kinds of conscious decisions an AI must make to be relatable to people. The story is also an examination of what it might be like for an AI to like and care about certain people. Beyond the AI issues, the story has strong doses of mystery and political intrigue.

There are three novels in the series (the first one a Hugo award winner), and a fourth novel that is mostly unrelated but set in the same universe. Sorry about the confusing pronouns.

The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells

Murderbot is a security cyborg. As such, he is highly skilled at both combat and cybersecurity. In addition to having almost no value to the company that owns him, he is wracked with guilt and struggles with social anxiety. This last characteristic makes him very relatable to readers with social anxiety, and if you are one, then I highly recommend this series. The series is loaded with action and comic relief.

There are presently five novellas and one full-length novel in this space opera series, with at least three more planned.

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

This novel tells two related stories of AI.

The main story is about a newly born AI that has been installed in an illegal humanoid body. This AI must learn and grapple with all kinds of topics, including self-purpose, relating to people, and how to survive without discovery.

The other story (the one I enjoyed more), is about an abandoned AI aboard a decommissioned and non-functioning spacecraft who must raise a lone child who has escaped from a slave labor facility.

This book is the second in a series within a universe by Becky Chambers, but it can be read as a standalone novel.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov

Four novels in Asimov’s Robot series feature a character named R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot who is a police detective. Like all of Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics are on display. The recurring theme in these stories is the distrust that humans have for the effectiveness of robots when it comes to thinking, and the robots out-thinking the humans at every turn.

I thought this was the first of two novels with this character, but there are at least four, and I haven’t read the other two.

Skyward, Brandon Sanderson

One of the characters in this young adult series is the AI on board a unique fighter craft. Its memory is damaged, and it has forgotten its origin and purpose. This leads to much (light, kid-level) exploration of the role of AI and the differences between AI and humans.

The series was originally intended to be three novels, which have all been published. However, there are now more planned, and there is also a short story and three novellas in the series.

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

This space opera series does include an AI that is the personification of the memories of all the emperoxs throughout the history of the empire. However, it is not so much a study of AI as it is the various personalities, and the fidelity that a computer simulation may or may not have.

The series is three novels.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

tHHGttG humorously explores AI with Genuine People Personalities that are just too much. Marvin the depressed robot, Eddie the irrationally cheerful shipboard computer, and even the overly polite airlock doors.

There are, famously, five books in the trilogy. They are easy and enjoyable reads.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Phillip K. Dick

And of course “Blade Runner”. This story doesn’t really explore the differences between AI and human intelligence, or the technology, or the capabilities. Instead, it explores the existential idea of being a non-citizen, of being essentially a person but not being recognized as such, of humans hunting down and killing androids, and androids fleeing (or fighting) for their lives.

The novel is much more an identity crisis for the protagonist, Deckard. The film focuses more on the plight of the androids, as well as the post-apocalyptic Earth.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

No list of this nature would be complete without mention of this novel.

Mycroft Holmes is supercomputer that attains self-awareness. Mycroft is not the protagonist of this story, but is a key character, both to the story and to the rebellion of the lunar colony fighting for independence from Earth. There is little existential examination of AI, but more about the power that an uncontrolled and highly connected AI could wield, especially within the realms of espionage and insurrection.

Do I recommend it? Well, it is a well-regarded classic from a master of the Golden Age of science fiction. However, doesn’t do much to inspire an emotional reaction in the reader, and like many of Heinlein’s novels, it is rather preachy about topics which we now know as Libertarianism.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Technically, it was a novel before it was a film, although the book wasn’t published until after the film was released. The AI stuff doesn’t seem groundbreaking today, but it probably was to film audiences in the 1960s. HAL gives a demo of itself, reciting facts about itself, including its inception date. Later it malfunctions, politely, but in a way that is life-threatening and seems malevolent.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

The Tea Master is an out-of-work living mindship that has fallen back to the vocation of brewing tailored drug cocktails for human travelers in non-space. There’s not much innovation here, apart from the idea that an AI would need to find a different job.

The story is kind of awful. Most of it is derivative. It is theoretically a novella, but so much context is left out, it feels worse than reading a short story. There are also a bunch of distractingly bad grammar mistakes (detectives don’t “deduct” things, they “deduce” them). I am horrified to see it is part of a series.

“The Terminator”

This isn’t a novel, but it deserves mention on this list, not so much because it is an interesting AI story, but because Skynet and the Terminator franchise has become the icon most referenced by popular culture about the supposed dangers of AI. The default trope about any film about AI is that it will inevitably rise up and destroy or enslave us all, and we owe it all to this film. Out-of-control AI is a convenient villain that has been used in films like “The Matrix” and “I, Robot”.