ChrisAir Reviews “Metal Like Blood in the Dark”

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2021 Hugo Award Series – Short Story Category

Read T. Kingfisher’s “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” published by Uncanny Magazine on September 1, 2020 in Issue #36.

Minimal Spoiler Review

Like Brother and Sister, twin protagonists of “Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, Ursula Vernon transforms into her adult-audience pseudonym T. Kingfisher to spin the yarn of robot siblings in the first trying moments of their lives. Their creator, who they lovingly call Father, must leave them and is unsure to return. So they survive out in the asteroids of their forgotten star system, and stumble upon something they don’t understand.

Perhaps the most powerful move in this piece is how Vernon manages to set the tone and a main theme in the first three sentences of a 7100+ word story, yet in such a subtle way.

Learn More about T. Kingfisher, a.k.a. Ursula Vernon.

The story starts with “Once upon a time…”, and follows through with the promise of a fairy tale. Kind, direct prose and a visceral, poetic tone drive the story. Vernon shows the stark dichotomy of sweet little kids giant robots with good morals and the bodily horrors of the wolf/giant1/bears, so to speak. Two sentences later, the end of second paragraph describes “nanite scurrying over nanite, tweaking the structure of their steel and carbon bones”. Vernon takes the reader from commonplace familiarity of the fairy to a SFnal take on corporeal intimacy.

Now, it’d be remiss to discuss a fairy tale of two robots without mentioning Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad. The duo “constructor” protagonists Trurl and Klapaucis from are robots who build machines that usually turn out to give them (or each other) grief in one way or another. Where Lem’s moralizing stems from cutting social satire and–frankly–silliness, Vernon remains serious about the social evils she criticizes. This is a needed distancing from Lem’s work, and plays directly into Vernon’s strength as an empathetic writer. To dive deeper, I’ll need to dip into spoilers…

1 “I’ll grind his bones to make my bread” specifically comes to mind.

Spoiler Content Below

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Sister is in fact, the main protagonist of this story once the pair discover Third Drone, an alien robot living in exile. The siblings are forced to build wings for an extremist, an outcast stripped of their wings so they may wreak havoc again on their homeworld, a gas giant named Chrysale2. While Sister collects the metal needed to rebuild the wings of this Lucifer, Brother builds them, held starving in a cage.

In 2020 if you read a story about putting children in cages, readers might balk for it being too on the nose, on the pulse of the horrors of the American state. Make them child robots, and it passes much in the same way Lem’s Soviet-critical SF stories from The Cyberiad passed under the radar. This story celebrates the success of the youthful in face of the ancient, of the exploited in face of the powerful. But this success comes at a cost, and not only the corporeal toil and torment Third Drone inflicts upon the siblings.

I would argue disinformation is the main theme of this short story. The internal conflict driving Sister’s character development is her struggle to come to terms with the notion of lying and its nefarious uses, withholding information, lying to Third Drone, and lying by omission to Brother. Through the innocent mind of Sister, Vernon showcases the damage of falsehoods and how simple benefiting from them can be. Like Sister, in the end, we should aim to limit the deceptions released in the world, to reign in the damage they cause.

All that, and nothing said about the sheer scope of this fictional star system, its hidden alien inhabitants, and the great inventor, Father. If you haven’t already (and even if you have), you should read this story.

– Chris Airiau

2For those familiar with French literature, the name “Chrysale” might ring a bell: he is the moronic father in Molière’s play Les Femmes Savantes. Maybe I’m stretching a bit, but I find it rather fitting that Third Drone, a Lucifer-like figure, is returning to rule a planet named after a famous figure of patriarchal stupidity.

Published by ChrisAiriau

I'm a science and SF content creator, specializing in writing technical scientific concepts in clear and engaging language. Alongside many writing and editing side-projects, I taught English in French universities for eight years. At university, I worked mainly for engineering Master’s programs and science undergraduates – from economics to physics, biology to psychology. My goal is to tailor SF and science content to a diverse range of audiences, and my background provides all the necessary tools to succeed.

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