Robot mothers: The Mother Code

cover of the novel The Mother Code by Carole Stivers

I’m fascinated by fleshy, emotional ideas about AI and robots. A lot of recent science fiction I’ve been reading explores this: what would a sentient, emotional AI be like? How would they experience the world? What would their material form mean? Would they love? So much of being human is about our bodily emotions and gut feelings and our physical responses to our experiences.

I just finished reading The Mother Code by Carole Stiver. I found the book quite annoying in many ways, but towards the end there are some really interesting descriptions of the relationship between “the Mothers” and the children they have incubated, birthed and brought up. The Mothers are repurposed military bots, designed to nurture human babies after an out-of-control bioweapon kills all humans.

Unlike the previous generations, the Gen5s were no mere machines. They were biobots, replicas of the “supersoldiers” he’d read about as a kid—shells affording real men and women the strength of ten. There were fifty of them—this large number to be deployed based on the expected probability of attrition in the field. Approaching one of the silent machines, he looked up to search her shoulder for a glimpse of her folded wing. Each bot had a pair of retractable wings and a pair of ducted fans, allowing short takeoff flight directed by an onboard computer. Power—enough to last far longer than a human lifetime—was supplied via a small nuclear source housed in the rear of each bot, encased in a layer of iridium and embedded in graphite blocks.

The crews who’d assembled the Gen5s had taken to calling them “the Mothers.” Although James sometimes wondered if the term was used tongue in cheek, he had to admit that the bots looked fit for the task. Their aft holds housed the small laboratory where birth would take place, and their hollow forebellies were outfitted to ensconce a small human in a seated position. In addition to a powerful pair of articulated arms and legs, each bot was equipped with heavy treads, built-in elements of the lower legs. When she hunkered down as though on her knees, her treads allowed her to trundle slowly but stably over rough terrain. As he scanned the Mothers, now kneeling in orderly rows, James imagined them beckoning their children . . .

But they would never be that. A robot could never be a substitute for a human parent. (pp. 102-103)

Of course, by the end of the novel, we know that the Mothers’s certainly can substitute for human parents, and that their symbiotic relationship with their children has given them not only sentience but also emotions. I’ll return to that soon.

But first, humour me and let me tell you about some of the annoying bits. The Mother Code is written in the style of a thriller, with lots of military captains and scientists facing impending doom with breathless urgency. The writing is full of clichés, and although there are lots of strong women characters, the first two thirds of the book are mostly focalised through two men, and the basic society has kept gendered and racialised stereotypes despite the novel being set thirty years in the future. I’ve been reading so many novels that imagine new, more equitable futures that it’s a bit jarring to read a novel where so much seems to be the same, socially. People of colour have important roles, but it seems to be despite their race or ethnicity. So James Said, one of the protagonists, is of Pakistani origins and his uncle was a terrorist, leading Rick Blevin to be deeply suspicious of him. The Hopi people turn out to be immune to the virus that kills almost everybody else, but despite this the focus is on the 22 children birthed by robotic Mothers whose biological parents were military personnel, not on the indigenous people survivors. Kendra is a brilliant computer scientist, but she is a rarity due to her race:

a black woman with Kendra’s seniority was a rarity at Los Alamos. But Kendra held her own, her calm authority unflagging amid the daily chaos of her myriad duties. (p. 106)

I suppose it’s not all focalised through Rick and James. We also get to see Rick through Rose’s eyes, but it’s hard to imagine a more clichéed description:

Staring out the window of her little office, she imagined Richard Blevins’s chiseled features, his steely gray-blue eyes, his close-cropped military cut. The way he leaned forward in his chair when he questioned her during her monthly reviews—probing but not intimidating. Very practiced. Strangely attractive. (p. 38).

If you can get past the clichés, you may well, like me, continue reading so you can find out what happens to the children. The first part of the book alternates between the 2060s and the children and Mothers in the desert, and the 2050s narrative of the horror of the epidemic killing all humanity and the engineering of embryos who will be immune to the virus and robotic Mothers who will care for them. The second part of the book is all set in the post-apocalyptic future of the 2060s. We read about the care between each Mother and her child, about how the children meet, and how the Mothers lose their ability to communicate with their children due to a preprogrammed protocol that was intended to make the children more independent of their mothers.

Finally, the surviving military personell (who are also dying as their antidote cannot completely save them from the virus) try to “rescue” the children from the Mothers, but acknowledge, at last, the “humanity” of the Mothers.

The descriptions of the Mothers alternate between portraying them as terrifying and soft.

“Rosie . . .” He looked up at her, willing with all his might to shut out the vision of her as a powerful machine, to hold in his mind the image of his mother, the flesh and blood at the heart of her metal shell. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat, and a faint breeze cooled the sweat that coursed down his skin. “I think I understand you now. I understand who you are.”
“Who . . . I . . . am,” she said. “Who am I?”
“I didn’t know before, but now I do. I learned . . .” Deep in his mind a baby cooed, its tiny hand reaching out to touch its mother’s face.
“You learned,” she prompted. He could feel the ground tremble once more as she trundled toward him.
Then he felt her, for the first time, in the way that one person feels another. For that was what he had learned, in the years since they’d lived alone together. He’d learned how one person feels toward another. The sense of someone different from himself, yet complementary to himself. Outside—but very, very close. Now he could listen to his Mother and imagine the voice of the woman she had once been. He could look at her and see not a towering agglomeration of man-made material, but in her stead a real human being. His mother. (p. 314).

In a sense this is a fascinating description of the relationship between mother and child. Lacan writes about the mirror phase and how a child by seeing themself in a mirror recognises that they are an individual, separate from their mother. This child, Kai, had nobody except his robotic Mother (Rho-Z or Rosie) for the first several years of his life. They communicated without words, through a chip implanted in his brain. Then for a time he could not communicate with her until she was rebooted, and he feels her like this.

A weird aspect of all this is the way the Mothers’ “humanity” is based upon their being programmed to mimic a specific human woman. Each Mother’s AI is trained on the woman who donated the egg that grew into that Mother’s child.

The Mothers have a very physical bond with their children. They speak nonverbally through the brain-implanted chip in the child, and the child quite literally lives in the Mother’s body, in a “cocoon”. The Mothers have soft hands for caring for their children as well as strong robotic hands for larger tasks. They have wings and

[human mothers also have a bodily connection]

“I remember you. You are my son, the boy whose body speaks to me.” (p. 315).

The novel ends when the children are just eleven. The Mothers are clearly sentient, and have fortunately begun to communicate with each other as well as with their children. I wonder how these children will eventually become more independent from their Mothers.

On one of the final pages, the adult James is embraced by Rho-Z, Kai’s Mother. Even grown men need mothers to bind them to their children, it seems.

Safe in Rho-Z’s embrace, he felt his limbs relaxing. He felt a warmth, more than the flow of blood within his veins. He’d forgotten so many things. Sara’s gaze. The way that her love, a mother’s love, had bound him to Misha in their tiny family of three. (p. 336).

I am a human mother of an eleven-year-old, and of two older children, and while I know the closeness and love of mothering, the idea of only being a mother is terrifying. Not only for me as a mother but for me as a child as well – can you imagine how stifling it would be if your mother had absolutely no purpose in life except for you? What a nightmare!

This is a strange book in a way. Love and the parent-child bond are what make the Mothers sentient, but they are also only sentient because they model specific human women, they “carry the soul” of a woman.

Here I am, trying to replicate the souls of a few select women in succinct packets of computer code. So that their spirits can live on. So that they can guide a generation of children whom they’ll never know, but whose names they’ve chosen.” She blinked, and a tear made its way down her cheek. “It seems crazy. It is crazy. But we have to try. I know the bots can’t be human. But maybe they can be the next best thing.” (p. 298)

Ultimately, Rho-Z has value and is capable of love and being love because of her connections to humans: the human woman who she was designed to emulate, and the human child she incubated, birthed and cared for. When her humanity is emphasised, she is portrayed as “safe”, and soft and loving, in contrast to the killer robot she is described as elsewhere.

One could also extend the analysis to take it as a metaphor of how our culture views mothers in general. But I don’t think I’ll go there today…

25. February 2021 by Jill
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