“Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work” takes place aboard a generation ship where every resource must be carefully hoarded, and recycled, in order to ensure survival. In the midst of this scarcity, one robot caretaker has fought for the importance of art. Her name is Ninah, and you’re going to be heartbroken by the end of her simple, economically told story.
Ninah has gathered together pipecleaners, beads, and other scant resources so that the children she looks after can make sculptures and other artwork. While some on board the ship see these art projects as a trivial luxury she considers it a necessity: ‘Everyone needed work. Humans, children—androids.’ This line reflects the fact that ‘work’ can be defined as the need for a personal purpose as well as a type of production. Ninah has made sure that the children are stimulated and given the chance to be more than just a ship grown generation of colonists or soldiers. And in doing so, she has turned a mandatory care taking assignment into her own purpose.
Although the reader spends a very short time with Ninah, the story quickly builds a vivid sense of her history and her character. So, it is gutting to learn that when the ship lands in three months, Ninah, like the art projects the children make, will be re-purposed. It is even more heart-wrenching because caring, vibrant Ninah will become a military bot, and ‘she would not care. They would still call her Ninah, and she would still love her work.’ Ninah’s fate is an example of what happens when an identity is overridden by the practicalities of the state.
Tina Connolly’s story does soften this devastating blow slightly. In the end, a desire for a legacy, a sense of permanence, however small, wins out. And, while the ending is undeniably tragic, as there is no reprieve for Ninah, there is at least a bittersweet sense of triumph and defiance. Ninah will resonate with anyone caught in the grip of a society that values people for what, and how much, they produce rather than who they are. Or, y’know readers who just love crying about robots. They’ll like this story too. Definitely recommended to everyone who loved “Fandom for Robots“, for example.