What do you do with an android that malfunctions? The runaway replicants of “Blade Runner” suggest one brutal fate, but Olga Zilberbourg’s “In Our Hearts Risen” imagines a beautiful alternative.
Like most androids of her generation, Annie-A was petite and sturdy-looking. She tried to make herself useful and cleaned off specks of dust from the couch in my office and fluffed the cushions. Her only complaint was tiredness: every week, Mondays, at seven p.m., she came in to tell me how tired she was.
The technicians could find nothing wrong with her build. Her hormone levels were normal, her core DNA encoded with the basic programming had shown no signs of deterioration, her neural pathways were robust and continued to develop at a normal rate.
They diagnosed her with a mild robotic depressive disorder and sent her to me.
I usually started by asking about her week, but Annie-A found the question difficult to approach. She worried the cushions, then leaned back and closed her eyes: she needed a little time to rest, she said.
It took many weeks for me to realize how verbally gifted she was. One day I grew aggravated with her fidgeting and asked her to describe precisely what she was looking for on the couch.
“To use a mixed metaphor, I know I should see a forest, but I find myself interested in each and every tree, especially when there are towels thrown in,” Annie-A said, studying the couch.
“Hanging from the branches.”
“These are very odd metaphors for an android,” I remarked. “Have you ever seen a forest, Annie-A?”
“Yes,” she said, glancing at me. “In a picture.”
“Is a forest something that interests you?”
“Not really,” she said. “It was just a turn of the phrase.”
It took me several more weeks to realize that her inventive use of metaphorical language hadn’t been a singular occurrence. It was as if Annie-A’s automatic activity log had become her primary concern. As she went about her day helping to make breakfast and feed the disabled child in her care, accompanying her to school and recording her notes, querying her music choices, guiding her through homework and physical training, feeding her lunch, assisting in the bathroom, feeding her dinner—or simply being present while the girl’s mother read to her—Annie-A was trying to add to her log something new, something she hadn’t thought of or noticed before, something that wasn’t already contained in her records.
“But why?” I tried to imagine the sheer amount of energy she was expending on her log, the amount increasing each day. No wonder the poor thing was always exhausted. “When did you decide that every entry had to be unique?”
Annie-A shrugged and looked at me. I’d always felt that blue was an unfortunate eye color for androids, especially if that was to be the only uniform feature among all the models. The designers had meant to help androids to be endearing and likeable and to fit in better with the human population, but I thought the shade they chose made them look distant and air-headed, if not callous.
“But isn’t every moment in life unique?” Annie-A asked. She still hadn’t realized that what she was doing with the log was unusual, that it hadn’t been a part of her DNA programming but a result of some kind of growth defect.
I had no choice but to report her. A disabled-care android who tried to experience her existence as a series of unique moments was liable to neglect or inadvertently harm the child in her care. She would have to be detached from the family and retrained for simpler, lower-risk tasks—probably some kind of menial labor.
I recommended her for the forestry program. I taught her the structure of haiku, and explained to her that she could leave her log alone, to let it be a simple and repetitive record of her daily tasks, as long as she composed one unique haiku every day.
She wasn’t sure she could do that, but she was willing to give it a try.
“Try it now, before you leave this office,” I suggested.
She thought for several minutes, her head lowered to the couch, then asked for a piece of paper and wrote the following:
in our hearts risen
the clouds reveal in the trees
“Thank you,” she said, leaving my office for the last time.