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Ancient Engines by Michael Swanwick

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A 1999 short story that was nominated for the Hugo award, “Ancient Engines” explores the idea of robots that are so self preserving that they actually purchase replacement parts for themselves in a bid to live forever.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Locomotive

The story begins as a drunken human insults a mech (robot) in a bar, and nearly dies because of it. As the triumphant mech makes to leave, he is invited to chat with an old man and his granddaughter – who question the mech’s ability to live forever. They embark on a discussion of what it would take to create a robot that could live not just for a long time, but until the very end of the universe – several billion years from now.

“What is it you want to talk about, Mr. Brandt?” His voice was audibly less hostile now, as synthetic counterhormones damped down his emotions.

“Immortality. I found your ambition most intriguing.”

“What’s to say? I take care of myself, I invest carefully, I buy all the ugrades. I see no reason why I shouldn’t live forever.” Defiantly. “I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

“No, no, of course not. Why should it? Some men hope to achieve immortality through their works and others through their children. What could give me more joy than to do both? But tell me – do you really expect to live forever?”

My Two Cents:
The old man makes a good point in part of the discussion, asking if there are any machines in current use that are older than humans? This made me think – do I use any machines that are older than I am? Sure, the ideas of TV and the automobile have been around longer than me, but my actual television and car aren’t that old. How good would a machine have to be before that happened? Interesting to think about.

The good:

  • The discussion of what it would really take to create a machine that could last forever is the highlight of this story. Some very interesting ideas, including how it would get energy once the sun burns out.
  • Quite a short little story – and the last paragraph has the biggest thought provoking line of the entire story!

The bad:

  • The first part of the story (where the mech fights the drunk) seems a little off topic. I know it sets the stage for the discussion later on – but it still seems kind of odd.
  • This is a thinking story – not a lot of action and space faring here. (Except for the bar fight at the beginning)

Fact Sheet:
• Length: 8 pages

“Ancient Engines” garnered the following awards:

  • Winner of the 2000 Asimov’s Reader Poll
  • Placed second in the 2000 Locus Poll
  • Nominated for the 2000 Hugo award for best short story
  • Nominated for the 2000 Nebula award for best short story

Where you can find “Ancient Engines”:

  • This story first appeared in the February 1999 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction.
  • “Ancient Engines” is included in Michael Swanwicks award winning collection Tales of Old Earth .
  • You can purchase an electronic version of this story at Fictionwise.

Related Yet Still Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that Michael Swanwick had not one but two short stories nominated for the Hugo award in 1999? Yep – this one and “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur“. You can learn more about this excellent science fiction author at Wikipedia.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might like Heaven, As Built By Tackleby Ames, a humorous piece of flash fiction about an old man trying to live forever, by Bart Meehan