Today’s Book: “So You Want to Be a Robot: 21 Stories”, a collection by A. Merc Rustad
Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!
“So You Want to Be a Robot” is a collection of speculative short stories – mostly fantasy (or sci-fi of the extremely fantastical variety), mostly dark, and mostly queer.
Rustad is the author of an essay called “I Don’t Want Your Queer Tragedy“, so it’s interesting to examine the collection in that light. Queer, trans, and nonbinary characters are thick on the ground in virtually every story, and are written with variety and respect. Most of them have strong, close, passionate relationships. Most of them, despite the darkness of many stories, get happy or hopeful endings.
It would be a mistake to view this as a light-hearted collection, though. Rustad is not an author who’s ever shied away from themes of monstrousness, abuse, or sacrifice. Several stories, particularly “Tomorrow When We See the Sun”, and “Winter Bride”, are not for the squeamish. Body horror and mutilation are common themes, as are protagonists living as the prisoners of seemingly omnipotent, sadistic beings. Some of these stories are so dark that it would be unrealistic for readers to ask for a happy ending; the glimmer of hope at the end is sometimes only a sense that the protagonist managed to accomplish something important before the night closed in.
But the collection isn’t all darkness either. Some stories, like the Nebula-nominated “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, are positively celebratory – often in explicit defiance of mainstream tropes, anti-queer or otherwise, that dictate what can and can’t be celebrated. Even in the darkest stories, love and community, including their queer varieties, aren’t devalued – they are vital to what the protagonists are doing.
Most of these stories are familiar to me as someone who follows Rustad’s work, but having them together in one book puts their shared traits into greater focus. Unapologetically being full of queer and trans characters is one of these traits, as is an intense sense of longing and loyalty, and the use of suns and other really bright lights to signify evil. So is a sheer density of invention that reminds me of Catherynne M. Valente or Yoon Ha Lee:
But let’s say you don’t get eaten by the roses. The circle you find yourself in next is a lightless tower that goes downward and never up. Chains spun from hanged men’s gurgles crisscross the stairs that don’t really exist. Beware of the ivy along the walls, for it grows on memory, until your mind is choked and full of leaves, and roots dig out through your skin and you forget why you came, and you sit there forever, and forever, and forever, and…
As for autism, Rustad’s writing isn’t as focused on this aspect of their identity as on their gender or sexuality. But a few stories do have autistic characters. I’ve previously reviewed “Iron Aria” and “Under Wine-Bright Seas” here, both of which are good stories with trans protagonists who read as autistic and have expressive speech difficulties.
A third story with an arguably autistic protagonist is the collection’s final entry, “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps”. The protagonist of this story, Tesla, both falls in love with a robot and longs to become one themself. They express their feelings through lists, some of which make it clear to me that Tesla isn’t neurotypical:
- 1. Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
2. (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)
I feel guilty claiming Tesla as an autistic character when “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” is so emphatically about other things. But it’s a deeply moving story about identity, dysphoria, depression, validation, and community, and it’s easily my favorite in the whole collection.
Overall, this is a very strong collection of stories that go well together. If you like what you’ve seen of A. Merc Rustad’s work online, you should definitely pick it up.
The Verdict: Recommended-2
Ethics Statement: A. Merc Rustad is someone I consider a personal friend. I asked them for a review copy and received a physical copy of their book from the publisher for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.
This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.