Sunday, November 25, 2007

Greg Egan's "Steve Fever": "Benign" autonomous robot swarm has a mission of its own!

Interesting robot story, & among the most readable cyberpunk stories I have yet seen. Unlike most cyberpunk, you don't have the text littered with technobabble; focus is generally on telling the story rather than impressing you with number of tech-sounding words author can spell.

Full text of the story is available for download.

Story summary.

Steve Hasluck is the man who created nanobots - very tiny robots - for medical purposes. They are kind of "tiny surgical instruments" that can "make decisions of their own, on the spot".They can be injected into your body; they will make local diagnosis & take local actions in affected part of body to heal you.

One find day, Steve is diagnosed with a kind of cancer for which there is no cure. He lets his robot army lose on finding a cure - injecting some cancerous tissue in rats & helping robots do the discovery. Because of lack of progress, his eventually provides his robot army with senses to let them explore the web & other human sources of information, & with "two clear goals. The first was to do no harm to their hosts. The second was to find a way to save his life or, failing that, to bring him back from the dead." To aid this, Steve "had arranged to have his body preserved in liquid nitrogen."

But Steve ends up dying in a road accident, with a burned out brain! His bot-army, eventually known as Steveware (individual bots are Stevelets), is intent on carrying out their assigned task - of bringing him back from the dead!

They learn to replicate themselves, to build "polymer radio antennas" beneath the skin of animals they infect so they can have a kind of grid communications network, & begin infecting humans to learn about the human consciousness. Based on known information about Steve, & the experience they gain by testing on humans, they hope to resurrect their creator!

When they infect a human, they can make him forced to think their thoughts, & carry out their agenda. They have survived all attempts of humans to wipe them out or game them into believing their mission has been accomplished. Humans can still keep trying with "counterware", & there are "Stevologists" - people studying Steveware behavior.

Over the years, they have built a lot of property in human world by trading their products - "everything from high-grade pharmaceuticals to immaculately faked designer shoes".

Main story is about infection of a 14 year old boy, Lincoln, by Steveware - about 30 years after the death of Steve - for carrying out a human consciousness experiment, & eventually his safe release when the experiment is over. We are told rest of the story as background information spread through the main story.

See also.

  1. Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "Two-Handed Engine" (1955): Another story where someone programs an army of robots for an impossible mission.

Collected in.

  1. Gardner Dozois (Ed)'s "The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection" (2008).

Fact sheet.

"Steve Fever", short story, review
First published: Technology Review, November/December 2007.
Rating: A