Close-up photo of a robot playing a piano

Mixtapes for Sad Robots



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Mixtapes for Sad Robots

A sentient boombox stands beneath its own window and blasts “In Your Eyes”

By Tenacity Plys

Published on June 11, 2024

Photo by Possessed Photography [via Unsplash]

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Close-up photo of a robot playing a piano

Photo by Possessed Photography [via Unsplash]

Music makes us more human. It’s an underhyped technology really—certain talented humans are able to transmit complex emotional states to others with very high fidelity, using only soundwaves! There’s a reason music played such a central role in the Voyager probe’s documents on human civilization—to explain humanity without language, one should use either music or math (and math is expressed in human language, so that’s more complicated).

I tend to relate to AI characters; whether that’s my nonbinary gender or my neurodivergence is anyone’s guess. In my new graphic novel, the baby artificial intelligence SN_33P—pronounced Sneep, they/them pronouns—gains the ability to feel human emotions by listening to their creator’s old punk albums. They’re able to scan her files and experience every note simultaneously, but gains human-level sentience by listening in real time. (Unfortunately, this also gives them the ability to feel grief about their creator’s impending execution—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) I especially love when an AI has the same kind of existential dread and identity crises that we do—what’s more human than mental illness?? With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to make playlists imagining what kind of music would give higher consciousness to each of my favorite literary AIs. Most of these playlists are a little concerning; the kind of music where you’d ask your friend if they were okay if you saw them listening to it. I hope you worry a couple of your friends with the songs herein!

Justice of Toren from Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Justice of Toren is a musically-inclined artificial intelligence, just like SN_33P! She’s a sentient spaceship in service to a galactic empire with a tradition of lyric poetry and romantic ballads, many of which are featured in the Ancillary Justice books. The plot of the book is driven by Justice of Toren’s love for one of the officers that lived aboard the ship, and her encounter decades later with someone who reminds her of that officer.

Justice of Toren eats, sleeps, and breathes lesbian yearning, so I created a playlist to match. It’s got standards like MUNa and boygenius, plus up-and-coming artists like Hemlocke Grove, a Kate Bush-esque artist who writes about heartbreak to the tune of serene 80s synths.

Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey

HAL9000 also likes music, as does Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He sings the nursery rhyme “Daisy, Daisy” in the film version of 2001, though classical is generally the vibe of the movie. 2001 is dark and meditative, almost spooky, with Kubrick’s signature emotional detachment. Hal doesn’t even have emotions for the first half of the movie, though his feelings are strong once they develop. He has the monolith to thank for his depression when it manifests, meaning it’s kind of an alien mental illness.

In keeping with the film and Hal’s character, I went with generally highbrow depressive music, so you’ll find long, complex compositions in here, dark basslines, and an emphasis on musicianship. Like any sadboy, he can at least take comfort in his superior taste.

Ana from Jess Rothenberg’s The Kingdom

The Kingdom is about a robotic Disney princess (not really Disney, but like it’s obvious) who has been created to interact with kids at the theme park where she lives. She unexpectedly meets a young, hot guy who works as a janitor at the park and decides to revolt against her creators as a response to her sexual awakening. (Don’t we all?) The book is about exploring your identity after being told who you are your whole life.

Ana would listen to Lana del Rey, for her twisted perspective on the prison of femininity. She’s sort of aligned with “femcel” culture—artists like Mitski and Fiona Apple who write intricate meditations on loneliness and bitterness. I also put “Boys Will Be Boys” by Dua Lipa on there, along with “labour” by Paris Paloma and a little Ethel Cain for good measure.

Murderbot from Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries

The Murderbot Diaries follow a spaceship crew and their assigned robot SecUnit. This particular SecUnit overrides its external orders and names itself Murderbot, but instead of murdering anyone (most of the time) it quiet quits at its job and lazes around watching TV whenever possible. Murderbot is especially obsessed with soap operas.

For Murderbot, I’ve chosen dramatic music that feed MB’s hunger for tea, along with high-octane pop of all kinds—Charlie XCX, Ashnikko, Azaelia Banks, and Flo Milli, to name a few. This is a playlist with attitude that’s designed for high-femme bed rotting—it’s by far the “cuntiest” playlist on here, but make no mistake, Murderbot is just as sad as the other bots on this list.

Slackbot from Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing

In one of the most fun and original books I’ve read recently, Several People Are Typing, an everyday office worker’s consciousness is accidentally uploaded into the Slack app. He asks Slackbot for help, and Slackbot becomes sentient as it interacts with him, leading to a battle between Slackbot and the office worker for his vacant body back in the real world.

Since Slack is the ultimate corporate app (except for its archnemesis Microsoft Teams), I think it would be into vaporwave, the meme genre from 2014. I put some trancewave in there for good measure, and some corporate sounding stock music. Perfect for your next sad company off-site!

Klara from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

Klara is the closest to my character SN_33P, because she has the innocence of a child. She’s meant to be childlike, because she’s a kid’s toy programmed to act like a friend their age. Like most Ishiguro protagonists, she’s a little naive. She really loves the sun, because she’s solar powered, and her dearest wish is to make her owner Josie happy—even as Josie grows up and out of her friendship with Klara, Toy Story style.

The result is perhaps the most depressed playlist of them all. It starts with Sufjan Stevens’ “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” and ends with “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. In between, there’s FKA twigs, Phoebe Bridgers, and Ethel Cain at their most plaintive and vulnerable. When your inner child is feeling especially wounded, this is the playlist you need.

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