Mary Robinette Kowal – For Want of a Nail

Cover illustration: For Want of a NailI’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this anywhere near as much as The Lady Astronaut of Mars. There are good ingredients in this Hugo-winning short story (and it is short), but it didn’t pack the emotional resonance of Lady Astronaut.

The world is intriguing but sketched (short story!) – a spaceship in flight, carrying people somewhere over generations; the hazards of legacy equipment and a commercial context (a fee for claiming your things from storage); and a hint of a highly-controlled social structure (repro rights, recycling). The story welds all these ideas together with a poignant challenge to a family’s AI wrangler who discovers (in the course of repairing it) the AI may be more independent and less honest than she thought.

Bizarrely, this is a story that left me cold on reading, but has acquired resonance as I’ve tried to write about it and realised I’d missed the point.

The interesting point (and the one that passed me by on reading), is that the AI is the most human character in the tale – if only because it has been programmed to be so. The humans live by a set of rules/standards that are applied ruthlessly; there is no personal or ethical framework to challenge those rules. They behave like machines in order to survive their journey; the AI can be programmed to obey new rules.

All of which is an interesting idea at the core, but doesn’t win any extra stars as I don’t think the execution is entirely successful. I like my short stories to pack a punch; this one was more like shadow boxing. It’s a diverting read, but not a particularly engaging or fulfilling one.

My edition includes the original draft of the story, written years earlier on a writing course. It’s also flawed, but I think Kowal is hard on herself – it too has some good ingredients (although some awkward writing and speech, and a pedestrian action climax). It is interesting to see how the story evolved from initial brainstorming notes to first draft to award winning completion.