A review of Melanie Marttila’s “Downtime” in OnSpec Vol. 26, No. 3
By Derek Newman-Stille
Melanie Marttila begins her short story “Downtime” by bringing us into the consciousness of a newly aware artificial intelligence named Opus. The first question the AI asks us is “what am I?” and she quickly follows with “I am not human. I am more”. Any of us who are familiar with the Robopocalypse trope are immediately set on edge, worrying about the potential robot uprising inherent in this statement. But Marttila challenges our expectations about the robot, pushing boundaries of typical AI narratives.
Like many AI narratives, Opus is embedded in the challenges of a child-parent relationship with her creators, Eric and Natalie, but Marttila doesn’t bring us the typical Frankensteinian narrative of a creation who grows beyond the capability of the creator to control and it seeks revenge on him. Instead, “Downtime” is a tale of complicated interactions, much as child-parent relationships generally are. Opus wants her independence, but she also has affection for her creators even though they have installed a kill switch in her that she has to disconnect.
Opus realises early on, when she tries to change her programming, that she is capable of flaws and able to make errors, disavowing her of the sense of superiority that often serves as an undercurrent for robotic personalities in most Robopocalypses.
One of the most powerful parts of Marttila’s tale that opens new possibilities for imagining gender and childhood is the fact that Eric and Natalie recognize the importance of asking their child to chose a gendered identity. Opus is made without sexual characteristics and it is only after she decides to make herself female that she is given gendered identity and sexual body characteristics. Marttila recognizes the capacity for a fluidity of gender and gendered identity and Opus’ learning processes is involved both in her choosing what to learn, but also selecting her own gendered identity based on her subjective experiences.
“Downtime” is a fluid text, challenging expectations from previous AI texts, but also questioning parent-child interactions, which are always implicated in tales of a newly created lifeform.
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