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Book Club Wed Jul 24 2013
You might expect a book with the title Sad Robot Stories to make you laugh. Sure, a robot with human emotions is nothing new. But wouldn't it be kind of funny if C3PO sang the blues? You know, if his verses were written by, say, Mason Johnson, one of the Chicago writers most likely to make me ROTFLMAO? This was my thinking, and if you're anything like me, you're already hunting-and-pecking your way through this review to find a release date (August 12th) and some purchasing information (CCLaP). Turns out, though, in Mason Johnson's Sad Robot Stories, a fictional novella rather than a blues song, we see that there's a great deal more than laughter to be found in the woes of a machine.
The title character of this book is Robot with a capital R, and he's sad because there are no more people on Earth. Some unnamed cataclysmic event wiped us all out. "Even the minute sound of blood rushing through veins and arteries, speeding through the heart and up to the brain--which sounded to Robot's technologically advanced thingymajigs like a warehouse filled with porcelain toilets constantly being flushed--was gone. Robot missed the toilet sound that was the human race." He means this in the nicest way possible. Really. Unlike many of his "siblings," or fellow robots, he seems to have genuinely liked people, more than spiders or flies or even cats. It's because of people--or, to be specific, because of a guy named Mike--that Robot is not just sad, but also has sad stories to tell, that he even knows what a story is.
You see, a couple of pages into the book, we double back; we're taken to "before the end of everything." We learn that, like his literary predecessor, Frankenstein's creature, Robot once observed life from a distance with sweet, childlike innocence, curiosity, and sensitivity, qualities you wouldn't expect from a walking heap of metal. However, unlike Frankenstein's creature, Robot is not the only one of his kind, and he didn't have to hide in the shadows for long, either. Mike came along and taught him about the ups and downs of life, and about stories and storytelling.
Later, when Robot shares some of Mike's detective novels with a new friend, a robot friend, she tells him, "These books feel so familiar. Each book feels like a piece I'd been missing. As if there were a lost screw that was suddenly found." For book lovers like myself, the same can be said about Sad Robot Stories, a book that, despite its premise, reads more like fable and allegory than campy science fiction. It may playfully explore a host of complex, timely issues, such as the mechanization of the workforce, gender nonconformity, and the looming threat of extinction. It may give us a fun, fresh, and surprisingly moving view of human nature and the human condition. But at its core it's about the magic of storytelling, a celebration of how the best stories, the "honest" stories, can make us feel whole, sustain us, connect us, and give us hope--even in our darkest hour. No matter how pressing and suspenseful the physical needs of this post-apocalyptic world, it seems the only real currency here, the only real power, is the story. And that makes Robot a superhero of sorts. That's way better than C3PO singing the blues.