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How to tell your fake boyfriend you would like to become a robot:

1. Tell him, "I would like to be a robot." You can also say, "I am really a robot, not a female-bodied biological machine," because that is closer to the truth.

2. Do not tell him anything. If you do, you will also have to admit that you think about ways to hurt yourself so you have an excuse to replace body parts with machine parts.

3. Besides, insurance is unlikely to cover your transition into a robot.

A. Merc Rustad's "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" reminded me strongly of last year's Hugo contender "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love". Charming, quirky, artfully secretive, and with a similar melancholic emotional pull to Rachel Swirsky's story, "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is for everyone who enjoys literature, robots, and crying in inappropriate places.

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is narrated by Tesla, whose main concern when the story opens is how to ask a customer service robot out. Tesla tells much of the story using themed lists; the list's headlines outline a particular issue or situation, and the substance of the lists develop the plot or the reader's understanding of the characters. The list which opens the story 'How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot' is a little clunky but, after that jerky start, each list develops the story with such clarity that this narrative form quickly comes to seem the most logical and natural way for Tesla to tell the story.

Rustad's story enjoys springing surprises on its reader. Jonathan, the boyfriend Tesla mentions in the initial list, is actually gay, but this is only revealed to the reader after the story has laid potentially misleading signs which establish their relationship as romantic but troubled. Tesla has already said that 'Your so-called romantic relationship is as fake as you are.' and when Jonathan tells Tesla he's met someone they're cuddling on the couch. The reader's initial reaction is that this is now a story about a straight man cheating, but Tesla immediately flips that understanding by asking if it's a guy and, when Jonathan says yes, replying 'I'm glad'. Tesla knows Jonathan is gay - they've been presenting as a romantic, straight couple for their parents. This is the first of several plot reveals that change and deepen the reader's understanding of how the characters and their relationships work.

Crucially, this reveal allows for two interconnected realities. While Jonathan and Tesla are not in a romantic relationship - Jonathan is gay and Tesla isn't 'interested in socially acceptable relationships' - in private they like to curl up together on the couch. In some stories these two facts would be unable to co-exist, and the two might be narratively forced into a romantic relationship, but here the situation works quite naturally. "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" continually asks readers to challenge their assumptions and step away from the 'single story' interpretation. I especially enjoyed the subtle ways the story used slight changes in language to show how even Tesla struggles with ignoring the single story narrative. Tesla goes from calling Jonathan 'boyfriend', to 'fake boyfriend' or 'pretend-boyfriend' once he and Bernardo are together and Tesla is struggling to find a way to fit into the new dynamic. Then once Tesla finds a space in the relationship, even though this previously seemed impossible without a sexual or romantic link, Jonathan goes back to being called 'boyfriend'.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla is besieged by concerns about many different but connected issues: body dysmorphia; confusion about relationships and social interaction; anxiety; depression; and concerns about telling people about wanting to date a robot. At times, it appears that it is possible for the reader to 'diagnose' the true root of Tesla's wish to become a robot. For example the list '11 Reasons you want to become a robot' gives reasons which are largely to do with people making negative societal judgments about Tesla's human form or which could later be attributed to Tesla's depression. Being presented with these reasons encourages the reader to judge whether becoming a robot will really help her, and to almost assume that they know better than Tesla.

However, by the end of the story it is clear that if all these reasons were removed Tesla wouldn't automatically stop wanting to become a robot. All of the worries and reasons that the reader encounters play a part in assuring Tesla that the desire to become a robot is right, but they aren't the root cause of Tesla's drive to become a robot. In the end, what keeps that desire alive is simple - Tesla should be a robot because that's what feels correct for Tesla. I found this list recommended on a list of short stories about trans or non-binary characters, and I think "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" constitutes an SFF attempt to explain the need to present as transgender or non-binary, and to clarify how outside factors do and do not affect that desire.

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is also a story about depression. While Jonathan and Tesla are close, Tesla hides things from him and from his boyfriend Bernardo because anxiety and depression makes it hard to believing that they will accept or want Tesla. Tesla talks about Jonathan coming out via social media in the list 'How to have awkward conversations about your relationship with your boyfriend and your boyfriend’s boyfriend:' and this illuminates Tesla's fears. It's also a place in the story where other characters to affirm their acceptance of Tesla:

6. He posts the message to his wall. You immediately like the update.

7. (You don’t know what this means for your façade of boyfriend/girlfriend.)

8. Your boyfriend says, “Tesla, we need to talk. About us. About all three of us.” You know what he means. Where do you fit in now?

9. You say, “Okay.”

10. “I’m entirely cool with you being part of this relationship, Tesla,” your boyfriend’s boyfriend says. “Who gives a fuck what other people think? But it’s up to you, totally.”

11. “What he said,” your boyfriend says. “Hell, you can bring the robot in too. It’s not like any of us object to robots as part of the family.” He pats his boyfriend’s cybernetic arm. “We’ll make it work.”

12. You don’t say, “I can be a robot, and that’s okay?” Instead, you tell them you’ll think about it.

The simplicity of that final list item - I almost broke.

Tesla is also suicidal. Tesla tells the reader why and lists various considered ways to self-destruct. Initially the quest to become a robot, impossible as it is for a human being at the point in time that this story takes place, is partly a way for Tesla to set up a suicide attempt. Luckily, along the way, the story helps Tesla to find reasons to stay alive, including saving the robot from the coffee shop, and find another, happier path to becoming a robot.

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is emotional, and it deals with a lot of serious subject matter but the list format allows the story to introduce a lightness of touch, along with humour and comic timing. This is a story which talks about a long term desire for suicide, but which I would overall describe as charming. Much like after reading "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love", I came away from this story feeling a little melancholy but mostly energised by the act of following a meticulously crafted story. I was also relieved that this story had a happier ending than Swirsky's. Everyone is OK - phew.

Brace yourselves - there may be a lot of Short Business posts about robots this year. Look what you've started, Rustard!

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is available for free at Sciegentasy magazine.

Other Reviews

Susan Hated Literature

Date: 2015-01-30 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I totally get the comparisons to If you were a dinosaur my love (love that so so much), and yes, it hits some of the same feels. Not quite a gut wrenching though. Although that could be very much a good thing :)

Really enjoyed it, thanks for bringing it to my attention, also yes to the lots and lots of robots.

Date: 2015-01-31 05:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
let's get everyone reading it!
I'm trying to, that's why I posted a link on Metafilter too, and everyone there seems to like it (

Date: 2015-01-30 11:21 pm (UTC)
general_jinjur: (Default)
From: [personal profile] general_jinjur
thank you for this review & rec - i never would have found or read this otherwise, and i love it.


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