Tuesday, June 10, 2008


"Burgerdroid" by Felicity Shoulders is awesome in a completely different way than the sf stories that I usually consider awesome. It could be set in any near-future time—actually with the tech involved it could be set today. The story doesn't have a plot to speak of, and ends in a fairly nihilistic way. It spends a lot of time describing the emotional state of a single mom. And yet, it's still really awesome. Let me summarize before getting to the root of its awesomeness.

Elsa is a single mom. She's an under-employed ballerina, working at Burgerdroid to make ends meet and get health insurance. See, Burgerdroid isn't your run-of-the-mill fast food joint. Its conceit is that it's fully automated—no humans, just robots. Obviously they do this through trickery, hiring actors and dancers to play the parts of the robots. They invest a lot in keeping up the charade: relatively high pay and health insurance to reduce employee turnover, renting out adjacent building space so that human workers aren't observed entering the Burgerdroid facility, etc. There's a risk that Elsa's son Henry might spill the beans, another source of tension for Elsa.

So it's a lot like Disneyland, a carefully maintained corporate facade. One of the most fascinating parts of the story comes from the descriptions of the customers: some who assume everything really is automated and like the fact that they don't have to deal with people at all, some who come for the novelty, some who come over and over to try to catch the robots out, and some who come in with vandalism at heart.

So that's all awesome, and really well imagined. What puts this over the top though, is the way it investigates our relationship to machines. SF often romanticizes its robots, but as Elsa plays a robot day after day, she feels her artistic side draining away. She's worried that she's becoming too mechanical. The way that the customers treat the dehumanized robots is also telling. It implies that robots are unlikely to be our bestest friends; they're at least as likely (as, in all fairness, Isaac Asimov also portrayed) to be disassembled by hoodlums. This is a short story that packs a lot thinking about the human/machine interface into a short number of pages. Well done, and another one to keep in mind for awards time.

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