Science fiction books about robots of 2021

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2021 Scifi Robot Books

2021 produced four new scifi books with good hard science underpinning their depiction of robots and three where there was less science but lots of interesting ideas about robots. Not only are these books enjoyable on their own, but the fiction can serve as teachable moments in robots and STEM and inspire a robot-obsessed teenager to read more and improve their reading comprehension.

  • Termination Shock
  • Machine cover
  • dumb machine
  • zero day
  • Fugitive Telemetry
  • fan fiction
  • A Psalm for the wild mounts

Let’s start with the science fiction book I most frequently recommended my friends read in 2021: Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. It’s not a robot book per se, but robots and automation are interspersed in a realistic way – and the book is one of Stephenson’s best, bringing together LOTS of technology, subplots and themes. similar to what he did in diamond age. One of the common threads of technology is how ubiquitous drones are throughout the book, with small drones used singly or in swarms for surveillance and social media and larger drones used for delivery, human transport and, well, chaos. Nominally, the book is about climate change and how a group of individuals led by a wealthy Texas plan to cut the chatter from the COP26 meetings and pursue environmental geoengineering. Except the money and geoengineering is the easy part… It’s a one book comedy-drama and manages to never lecture or push political agendas, it’s more like hard science wrapped in memorable characters, a compelling plot and a sense of humor, with an “oh my!” twist at the end.

A great way to think about how drones are being subtly integrated as tools in the military, security, and journalism. And that ultimately, despite the huge investment in anti-drone technology, a bird’s eye shotgun may be our best defense for small drones. Check RTSF topic page for more science links.

contrary to Termination Shock, robots and AI *are* the subject of SB Divya’s Machine cover. It’s a thorny book with piercing commentary on gig economics, climate change, automation, and ethics. A rogue neo-Buddhist decides that intelligent machines deserve rights and legal protections, similar to animals, which she calls the Machinery Manifesto. Next, she leads a terrorist cell to force governments to build protections against machinery into their legal frameworks. A SpecialOps operator is assigned to take her down, which she does with the help of her sister-in-law. Lots of action, lots of ideas, lots of realism and lots of stimulating jabs. The book echoes real-world arguments since the 1980s about treating robots like animals from a legal perspective.


It’s a wonderful and very useful introduction to the issues of robot ethics and autonomy and the very real concept of treating robots like animals – which is covered in the non-fiction book The New Breed by Kate Darling. You can read more about this in my recent Article on scientific robotics.

dumb machine by Mark Niemann-Ross is a comedy with an interesting and timely plot about self-driving cars, cyber-hackers and social justice warriors in Portland. It would be tempting to hack a self-driving car to get a boring full-time, I-protest-everything activist off a bridge, wouldn’t it? In addition, there is a nice Ubik-like smart home sub-plot. Not as well written, plotted and memorable as Termination Shock and Machine cover, but a quick and easy read.

The idea that self-driving cars will be both ubiquitous and hackable makes for a great learning moment in cybersecurity. A recent science fiction book that further explains how autonomous driving works is by David Walton There are deadly laws. You can read my Science Robotics article on self-driving cars in scifi here.

Like Machinehood, zero day by C. Robert Cargill is set in the near future. It’s the prequel to sea ​​of ​​rust, one of my all-time favorite robot sci-fi books. sea ​​of ​​rust is an evocative story about what happens after the robot revolution and how the robots themselves descend into a kind of Mad Max hell. zero day is not as striking as sea ​​of ​​rust, but very nice as a prequel. If you liked Spielberg AI: Artificial Intelligence, then you will like doubly zero day because it’s told from the POV of Pounce, the Teddy-like robot, who protects his boy Ezra during the robot revolution. you don’t have to read sea ​​of ​​rust first, zero day is a stand alone, but I recommend you do it. I hope there are more books in the sea ​​of ​​rust series.!

In robotics, zero day is a good introduction to nursebots, healthcare robots and home helper robots. You can read more about the science of nannybots on the Article on scientific robotics and home robotics, sometimes called home automation at Science Robotics here.

Of course, there were plenty of other sci-fi robots in 2021, just with less science. Here are three books to consider that feature robots with real-world science.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is one of my best “must read!” The latest addition, Fugitive Telemetry, continues the charming Bildungsroman of the most devious robot in the galaxy. ROFL as always, it maintains the usual clever plot and action that makes the Murderbot Logs a Hugos and Nebulas award favorite. And Murderbot, like the humans in Termination Shock, has a swarm of drones and knows how to use them. Oh, SecUnit, I love you!

And I love the series as a way to illustrate real-world issues in software engineering and cybersecurity for robotics. Check out discussions from software engineering in the first book and the Internet of things in the fourth.

It’s hard not to love Lt. Commander Data on star trek and Picard, right? Well, it’s hard not to love Brent Spiner, the nice Jewish boy from Houston who grew up writing a funny, self-deprecating semi-fictional autobiography as well as the star of a hit TV series. He calls his book, fan fiction, a “mem-noir” where a cast member, conveniently named Brent Spiner, in the third season of a modest hit conveniently called “ST:TNG” is stalked by someone believed to be Lal, Data’s short-lived robot daughter. The unfortunate actor thinks it’s like living in a Raymond Chandler novel. Brent reflects on his life and how he got to this point in his career as he tries to shoot episodes, go to parties at the Roddenberrys, sign autographs and hang out with Patrick Stewart, Levar Burton and Jonathan Frakes. Still, Spiner comes across as an ordinary guy, grounded and grateful – and amused – to be “successful” in Hollywood. Makes me want a follow-up – what was this actor’s life like after years of grueling 16-hour days on set and rising fame?

OK, there’s not much in the way of robot learning moments, but it’s still fun.

A Psalm for the wild mounts by Becky Chambers, the titular science fiction writer (and that’s a good thing!), is a sentimental Solar-punk book. The book doesn’t have much action but could be perfect for middle schoolers (although some F-bombs are dropped) or read aloud for young children. Or something to enjoy instead of listening to Lake Woebegone tales or re-reading Cadfael’s books. The premise is that in a future world, robots have spontaneously acquired sentience and then let busy humans terrorize to explore being a robot. Now they are back, self-realized and ready to explore humanity asking “what do humans need?”

Seems like there’s not much to say about real robots, does it? And yet he has one of the agency’s most compelling explanations, of what makes something more than a machine, which is a fundamental concept of artificial intelligence and how autonomy is different from automation.

Hopefully this list of books gives you something to read and, more importantly, something to think about in 2022!


Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and vice president of the nonprofit Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and vice president of the nonprofit Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

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