2 thoughts on ““Rusties” by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu”

  1. Hmm, another "emergence of sentient machines" story. I’ve never read one set in Nairobi before (or anywhere but the US & UK, as far as I can remember), but it really makes little difference. I could imagine those traffic robots installed in US cities perfectly well. It seems that maybe the US did things differently in the story, since the narrator talks about police brutality there but not at home; but she has no reason to tell us much about the US.

    One thing that may be local is the economic effect that ever-increasing automation has; but it must be hard to adjust to that anywhere. There almost always are waves of unemployment when a major new technology is introduced. Anyway I looked up the phrase "Kazi Bure" in Swahili and it seems to mean working uselessly & without gain, running without getting anywhere– what unemployed graduates feel they’ve done. (A rather familiar frustration for university graduates in the US recently.) Magana is thoroughly insulated from all that; in 2016, Ndege Road is located in a very upscale suburb of Nairobi, and it seems in the future Magana still has inherited wealth.

    I wonder why the authors chose to have this story narrated by a rich woman who’s oblivious to anything that doesn’t affect her. She simultaneously talks vaguely about rising unemployment and insists that the Rusties are good for the economy. Good for her father’s business, yes, but who knows what that translates to for the vast majority of Kenyans.

    The real focus of the story is on Magana’s unique point of view as one of very few people to attribute emotions to the Rusties. It’s her personal quirk that talking to Rusty Ndege means more to her than most people get out of talking to chatbots. Really, for 98% of the story, Rusty Ndege’s conversational abilities are about on par with what computers can do today — that is, not much. She thinks a flash of pink light means special friendliness, but is she right?

    It’s left quite unclear whether the Rusties really experience emotions. Magana tells the story in such a way as to strongly suggest it. But after all she was already reading friendliness into Rusty Ndege twenty years ago, before all the upgrades. Did the Rusties go on strike when Lumumba 2 was killed? (Possibly significant BTW that the Rusty who’s both the first installed and the first killed is named after the assassinated first democratically-elected president of the Congo. Lumumba 2 could have been the pioneer of an age of peaceful cooperation between humans and intelligent machines, if only…)

  2. If the Rusties are in fact trying to communicate with humans, they’re quite inept at it. They seemingly borrowed some protest tactics (sabotage) from Kazi Bure, but not the ability to explain in clear words that they’re protesting. And Magana thinks that Rusty Ndege is wordlessly trying to please her. But the fact that the machine does things without telling her its intentions leaves her feeling manipulated.

    She is emotionally highly wrought up on that final day, fed up with being lied to (apparently) by Kevo, with being talked at by men; ready to find reasons to be angry with Rusty Ndege, which seems to have been jealous of Kevo and dealt with that clumsily like an immature young human might. The irony of the whole thing is that Magana wouldn’t have been angry if she thought Rusty Ndege was just a machine; she was reacting to the betrayal.of having been manipulated by a friend. But the other machine-smashers didn’t see that and were acting out of a different kind of anger and fear.

Leave a Reply