Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Microreview: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

After robots have learned from humanity to love, can a lone human then learn it from robots?

With the word robot coming from the Czech for "servitude," it seems inevitable that stories about artificial intelligence will continue to deal with questions of control and freedom. The genre has oscillated between the moods of Frankenstein and Pinocchio: one day we dread that a being we can't control will want to control us, and the next day we cheer for a being that has cut its strings. In these periodic oscillations, retreads are inevitable. One day we meet the Terminator; the next we meet Astro Boy. And there's Megatron and there's Baymax. M3GAN and CHAPPIE. Lore and Data.

OK, but what happens when Pinocchio falls in love with the Terminator?

TJ Klune's new novel In the Lives of Puppets retells Pinocchio with the twist that its protagonist is a human boy with an artificial father. Victor, the human, lives in a forest paradise like those of fairy tales. The days go by in a placid bliss of fresh air, fresh food, gentle company and no worries. Giovanni, the robot, has taken care of Victor with selfless devotion since he was a baby. The shelter they've built among the trees is all they need to be happy. Until the killer robots come looking for trouble.

The journey that Victor then begins is a good illustration of the plot device that pairs world discovery with self-discovery. He didn't have a human to learn to be human from, and yet there's something in him that no killer robot can destroy. The love that he's received from his robotic father and his robotic friends is as real as the love that a tall, dark, handsome strangler sparks in him. As he investigates the true history of the world outside the forest, he also learns to assert where he fits in the posthuman order and who he wants to be.

It's a difficult needle that the author threads here. Learning to mature as a person is challenging enough; doing so when everyone you meet in your journey is a static thing incapable of growth raises the difficulty to epic. And yet, in his interactions with robotic culture, Victor manages to gain a clearer perspective of his identity, his hopes, his desires, and his limitations. It's a very indirect way to form a sense of humanity by contrasting it with everything it's not. The robots share with Victor their second-hand impressions of what humans are like, but it's up to Victor to try and guess how accurately those interpretations may reflect real humanity and how much of that information feels right for him.

It's not like Victor is fully disconnected from human culture: robots are, after all, a human product, inevitably shaped by all our biases and weaknesses. Robots also form personal bonds and ask themselves about their future. But without a human heart (and here's where the novel veers into science fantasy territory), none of the answers has meaning. The plot makes much of the importance of a human heart in the development of an authentic self, and your mileage may vary depending on how comfortable you are with the whole notion of genetic memory.

Questions of scientific rigor aside, In the Lives of Puppets does a stellar job of characterization. You watch Victor evolve and acquire a deeper, richer personality with each big moment of his quest. And his companions are a delight to read. Ratched is a cuttingly sarcastic robot nurse who may or may not actually have an empathy protocol, but who clearly does have an alarming predilection for drilling, while Rambo is an adorable refurbished Roomba who is too pure for this world.

And then there's Hap, the mysterious decommissioned robot that Victor finds, repairs, and teaches to love. This romance subplot suffers from monumentally gnarled power dynamics that are never acknowledged or addressed, which, on top of the novel's tendency to make too many lewd jokes at the expense of its asexual protagonist, makes the reading experience a lot less enjoyable than it had the potential to be. In the Lives of Puppets is a rough gem, full of hidden value obscured by uneven facets that needed more aggressive polishing.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Klune, TJ. In the Lives of Puppets [Tor, 2023].