Book Review: A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install (2016)

June 24th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Johnny Five is alive!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss/NetGalley.)

Amy curled her lip. “Ben, it’s a robot, it doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t care where it is or how broken it is. And this talk about you teaching it…you can’t even get it to talk properly. Wouldn’t you be better off doing something more productive?”

“Funny, ain’t it, the way we apply human qualities to these machines? People can get real attached to them. We have a cemetery just down the road for folks who’ve lost their androids.”

Thirty-four-year-old Ben Chambers is in a bit of a rut. By which I mean a gaping, stretching chasm from which escape seems impossible. His parents died six years ago – adventurous adrenaline junkies in their retirement, they perished when the light aircraft they were flying hit a bird and crashed – and Ben’s been struggling with grief and depression ever since.

After their deaths, his studies faltered, and he was asked to take a leave of absence from the veterinary program he was enrolled in. Luckily, his parents left Ben his childhood home and a large chunk of money to live on; but this only enabled his chronic unemployment and general aimlessness. His wife Amy, a successful attorney, is understandably fed up; Ben doesn’t even try to pull his own weight in the form of household chores. Tang is just the straw that broke their marriage’s back.

When a beaten-up robot suddenly appears in their back garden one September morning, Ben fixates on him. (Ben is certain he’s a He, even if robots don’t have genders as such.) He’s convinced that “acrid Tang” – “Tang” for short – is special and in need of saving. Among the bolts and rivets and squat boxes that make up Tang’s body, Ben finds a broken cylinder, slowly but surely leaking fluid, in Tang’s chest – right about where his heart would be. Armed just with a few partial inscriptions on Tang’s undercarriage, Ben resolves to find Tang’s creator before the cylinder runs dry and Tang stops working.

Under normal circumstances, this might be just another of Ben’s broken promises … and then Amy leaves him, moving in with his sister/her best friend Byrony. He decides to show them – SHOW THEM ALL!!! – by fixing Tang, just like he said he would. And so begins a rather epic journey, that takes him from his home in the UK to an android brothel in San Francisco; the Houston Space Museum in Texas; the welcoming streets of Tokyo, Japan; and, finally, to find a mysterious recluse scientist in Palau, Micronesia.

Along the way Ben becomes rather attached to his new charge, who is indeed special: exuberant and petulant and oh-so-obstinate, full of life and will and an eagerness to learn. Tang is someone, not something, and his sentience – obvious for all to see – challenges the conventional notion that robots and androids are objects to be used, exploited, and owned. (There’s a great animal rights message hiding in here, though the book never addresses it explicitly. Many of the lessons introduced through the character of Tang are equally applicable to nonhuman animals. Just saying.) As the moment of their parting draws near, Ben questions whether he can let Tang go, even if it’s for the little guy’s own good.

The plot of A Robot in the Garden is a little different than I expected, but the overall feeling and tone met and maybe even exceeded my hopes. This is a crazy sweet story that will make you laugh, cry, and both anticipate and fear for the future – and what it might hold for potential AI.

Tang is, without a doubt, the breakout star here. He’s sweet and brave and a little childlike in his demeanor and experiences; but, like all kids, he can also be a handful. Tang knows what he likes and wants, and isn’t above manipulating, lying, and throwing “Tang-trums” to get his way. He can be jealous and rude, but also has a tremendous capacity for compassion and kindness. He has hopes and dreams and ambitions – just like any other person. He brings to mind Johnny Five from Short Circuit, even though Tang is a little more humanoid in design.

Ben is … a little more complicated. Like Tang, he can be petulant and childish, but it’s a much less attractive look on an adult man than a scrappy, six-year-old robot. Honestly, it took me a long time to warm up to Ben, especially given his shitty attitude towards his wife. He’s not mean-spirited, not exactly, though he doesn’t seem to give much thought to how his behavior affects her. Though he does come around, eventually – in fact, his early bad attitude is essential to the narrative arc of the story – it still doesn’t make any of the early Ben/Amy scenes any more enjoyable to read. But the ending almost makes up for it. (Almost!)

A Robot in the Garden is quirky and charming, but in the best way possible: rarely does feel forced or grating, despite the more outlandish flourishes. It’s also surprisingly funny; I found myself laughing out loud more than once, and rarely can books make me do much more than smirk.

I was a little disappointed that Kyle the three-legged sausage dog didn’t join them for the duration of the trip, but the draft excluder was a nice consolation prize. That and watching Tang shop for his own things, when previously he was a “thing” himself. So cute!

Read from: under a dog pile (preferably rescue dachshunds), with a box of tissue within grabbing distance.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Ben’s parents died in an airplane crash six years ago, and he’s been struggling with grief and depression ever since. He and his sister Byrony may or may not be alcoholics; they both drink a lot, but it doesn’t seem to impair their lives in a significant way.

Most of the characters are white, save for one: Kato Aubergine, a robotics engineer living in Tokyo. Ben and Tang travel to Japan in search of him, and are happy and surprised to find that Tang’s a hit there (whereas his “inferior” and “outdated” design was mostly met with contempt in the UK and the States).

Animal-friendly elements: Through the character of Tang, a sentient robot in a world of domestic servant androids, the story seems to champion rights for AIs, or at least challenge how we view robots, whether they’ve been built with a sense of self-awareness or not. Most are not, though this doesn’t prevent Byrony from treating her android with a little more respect upon getting to know the childlike Tang, her brother’s adopted ‘bot. It’s an argument that might easily be extended to nonhuman animals – although in the book never takes it in this direction.

 

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