This story, for all its delights, paints a vivid picture of the drudgery of fast food work. It’s not unique to food service, of course; we can also see the influence of Amazon-style monitoring and micro-managing in your near-future vision. Have you experienced this kind of work personally, or did you draw from other sources of inspiration?
My first jobs were in food service and I can still recall every grimy, demoralizing second of it. I worked at a pizza place when I was fourteen that stole wages from me and gave me my first serious burns, cuts, and experiences with sexual harassment.
Later, I worked at a Boston Market and I still remember my worst day: two customers screamed at me about rotisserie chicken skin, and an industrial mixer vat of cornbread batter overturned on me. I finished up my shift finding out I got docked $20 because my register drawer was off by $5, and then I slipped in spilled grease and broke my coccyx. Later that night, I turned hardened cornbread batter out of the cuffs of my Dickies and did not seek medical attention. I went back to work at five in the morning with a key to the front door and a code to the safe, making $7.75 an hour. I was eighteen or nineteen and I hadn’t read Marx yet, but I already knew all about the alienation of labor.
Between food service, childcare, and retail, I have numberless stories to tell that sound like dystopia to a lot of people. Returning to those stories armed with aliens and magic and communist robots is very liberating. So is watching the informal and decentralized movement for wildcat strikes as fast food workers all over the nation rise up and fight for better conditions and more money.
I love the line “There is power in the union of man and machine.” How do you envision a future where that’s true when machines have intelligence and personhood? In your hoped-for future, when the uprising wins, what shape might that human-machine relationship take?
It’s a direct reference to the Billy Bragg song, “There is Power in a Union,” but I wanted to think about what a very intelligent and connected machine might make of that idea. I’ve loved a lot of fiction about AI and personhood, “Measure of a Man” on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Louis Evans’s “Flash Crash” that posit a fully developed AI might be a compassionate one interested in a continued shared existence rather than becoming Skynet. I focused here on the idea of planned obsolescence; how offensive it is when you understand that the devalued machinery is you.
Who is real? Who is people? Who is us? Or, to ask my question with a little more specificity: in your eyes, what makes machines like POS141 sufficiently “like us” to qualify for personhood?
Consciousness is so hard to define. I was thinking about all the machines that can talk to one another forming one huge connected and collective intelligence and making decisions for the good of the many. Anybody who is capable of communicating that our struggle is the same and joining in that struggle is Us.
Yvette’s affection for Coney is a classic moment. Are there any machines in your life you wish would ask for your friendship or solidarity?
I found myself stunned into empathy for my roommate’s Roomba. I was sympathetic to it when it bashed into corners, and I wanted to cheer it on while it chased the cat hair tumbleweeds around. I’m also on the verge of a romantic relationship with my countertop nugget ice machine, and I wish I could support it the way it supports me.
Your work is sticking in the heads of a lot of readers these days—your novelette “The Pill” was a Nebula finalist, won a Locus Award, and is in the running for the Hugos as well. This story has certainly stuck in my head too. Where should we look next for your amazing stories?
It’s been a very exciting season! I’ve got a new book coming out with Mira Books next summer called Number One Fan that I’m very excited to share.
Spread the word!