Review of ‘Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction’ edited by Mike Ashley

I had my eye on this book for a while, but I wasn’t over-eager to read it, as I’ve had mixed experiences with the other books in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series: Beyond Time, Spaceworlds and Future Crimes. However, I do like stories about robots, so finally I gave this book a try. It turned out that I’d read 3 of the stories before but I didn’t mind.

The book includes 14 stories first published between 1894 – 1965, a good introduction, an essay on the history of computing / automata / robots in science fiction (best read after everything else), and a mini spoiler-free introduction to each story. It does exactly as promised, demonstrating that writers’ fear and awe of artificial intelligence and its potential impact on society began surprisingly early. I felt that the stories were chosen for the concepts they addressed, with less importance given to the execution. However interesting the topics were, as fictional narratives most of them didn’t wow me. I have marked those I liked best with asterisks.

‘Moxon’s Master’ by Ambrose Bierce – begins as a philosophical discussion and becomes a horror story.

‘The Discontented Machine’ by Adeline Knapp – examining the effects of automation on the workforce.

‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’ by Elizabeth Bellamy – an amusing tale of creepy robot servants. *

‘The Mind Machine’ by Michael Williams – an early imagining of a robot uprising.

‘Automata’ by S Fowler Wright – an odd wordy story about extinction which I didn’t like much.

‘The Machine Stops’ by E M Forster – a very prescient dystopia, uncharacteristic of the author, which I’ve read a few times.

‘Efficiency’ by Perley Poore Sheehan and Robert H Davis – a disturbing one-act play about android soldiers.

‘Rex’ by Harl Vincent – a super-robot tries to turn humans into robots and vice versa.

‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ by J J Connington – a scary tale told to a scientist who keeps an open mind about it. *

‘The Inevitable Conflict’ by Isaac Asimov – the last (but not the best) story in I, Robot.

‘Two-Handed Engine’ by C L Moore and Henry Kuttner – a crime sci-fi hybrid in which robots punish murderers.

‘But Who Can Replace A Man?’ by Brian W Aldiss – a fantastic story of machines fending for themselves, which I first read in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. *

‘A Logic Named Joe’ by Will F Jenkins – interesting concept which anticipates the internet, but I didn’t enjoy the style.

‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ by Arthur C Clarke – a typically innovative foretelling of AI based on satellite communications. *

If you like robots and classic sci-fi, this book is worth a read – just expect a lot of telling rather than showing.

Published in 2019 by The British Library.

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction’ edited by Mike Ashley”

  1. I enjoyed this overall though I also thought it was quite a mixed bag, quality-wise. Mostly I agree with your selection of favourites but I enjoyed Automata, highlighting it as one of the best at the time, though I must admit I don’t remember much about it now!

    1. I’m glad you generally enjoyed this book. I think this series is a mixed bag anyway, the stories are mainly chosen for their themes and perspectives rather than quality of the writing.

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