Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Adventure Out Around the Asteroid Belt

"Waterbot" by Ben Bova is a straight-up Isaac Asimov-style story. From the initial expletive "Rats!" to hunting for water in the asteroid belt to being attacked by pirates, this is pure Golden Age sf. As such it doesn't offer anything new, just the Gernsback/Campbell formula of education, entertainment, and inspiration.

The narrator has been stuck with the less-than-desirable task of sheparding a "waterbot" out to the asteroid belt. It's got an on board AI and repair droids, but inevitably enough stuff breaks down to make sending a human engineer along worth it. (Don't think about the economics too much.) Living in enforced solitude is driving the narrator nuts, and he's even mean to the on board AI. It had been trying to improve itself by reading the textbooks he'd uploaded for himself, but he even goes so far as to make it delete some of them. Dude, that's just like kicking a dog.

Of course, the AI is right to have been working on improving itself: it had worried about being attacked by pirates, and right on schedule they are, indeed, attacked by pirates. They barely survive the encounter, and start limping back to inhabited space with dwindling resources and no hope of rescue. The narrator, after weeks of barely surviving, begins to contemplate suicide.

The moral of the story seems to be that AIs may be saner than humans, especially out in space. Its also uses the story arc where two incompatible people grow to like each other when thrown into hardship. It's the sf equivalent of the buddy cop movie, really. It's quite entertaining, and the AI is very easy to root for. In fact, the only problem may be that when the human is mean to the AI, we're already on the side of the AI. Preaching to the choir, I think they call that.

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