Reading Sundays: SHADES OF UNREALITY (Part 11), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

My scribe sighed as she sat in one of those moon-backed chairs.

“It’s not so simple.” She stroked Pandora’s orange fur as if she were a real cat. We have to think about what robots are going to be used for. The greatest need is to help nurses move elderly people. Many nurses have been badly injured trying to move them. Robots could do that task instead, and save their backs.”

“So what is the difficulty?” I took the chair opposite, arranging my velvet skirts around my feet.

“We don’t want robots taking decisions into their own hands, because we don’t know if we can trust them to act ethically. It would be a real problem if a robot with the strength to lift people suddenly turned that strength against them, breaking their arms and legs.”

I shuddered. Why had it not occurred to me that these beings could be a force for evil as well as good? Perhaps because they didn’t seem human?

“You do not think they should have rights?” I asked.

“Not until we know a great deal more about them,” said my scribe. “We need a public discussion.”

“I would like to attend such an important meeting,” I remarked. “When is it going to be?”

She smiled. “We don’t do things by formal meetings any more. This discussion will take place in the press, over the airwaves and on social media.”

I was silent. How could I respond to something I didn’t understand? Perhaps I should leave this matter to others. My six hundred years was weighing on me, and I was becoming tired.

My scribe smiled again. “Let us celebrate your birthday.” She went to another silver box in the guardroom-kitchen and drew out a bottle of bubbly wine, and a cake. But best of all was my present, a silver box the size of a pack of playing cards, which she told me was called an iPhone. I used it to take pictures of my new friends.


Shades of Unreality first appeared in Sci-Phi Journal.

Food for Thought:

SHADES OF UNREALITY plays with the principle questions of ontology, what is a thing, what things fit into which categories, and what are the various modes of being. SHADES is populated by two stuffed toys, one figment of the imagination, one robot, assorted machines and one human being, all of whom engage in lively conversation about what it means to be real, and the ethical implications of that reality.