You know it’s not going to end well. When the latest Mark IV TrooFriend leaves the factory floor, destined to join a new family, there are campaigners picketing outside and bad stories on the news. Even the sales pitch has a disquieting undertone from the very first chapter: your child ‘no longer needs to play with other children, who might bully or harm or lie or covet or steal or envy’. Like the best science-fiction ideas, this simple idea suggests a transformed world: lonely, chilly, half-dead. There’s an air of Frankenstein about the whole thing: would you be happy to have a human-shaped automaton in suspended animation in your bedroom overnight? Would you kill time with a creature twelve times as strong as a human being, one that is relaying all your activities to your parents in a recorded feed? And if your parents thought it was a good idea, would you feel unsettled? Unsafe?
Is somebody getting thrown in the river by their new best friend?
Kirsty Applebaum’s dystopia The Middler was a dark tale told with exceptional style: its village sealed off in a future war was a little cosy and a little confined, its secrets all ravelled up out of its protagonist’s sight so that we advanced with her, day by day, into the unknown. Now it was sweet, now it was strange, near the end it was thoroughly nightmarish, but that narrator’s unselfconscious voice drew it all together into one utterly convincing whole.
Applebaum’s new novel, TrooFriend, also makes subtle play with its narrative voice. Where we might expect to see events from the perspective of the TrooFriend’s recipient, Sarah, we get it instead from Ivy the android itself. Unworldly, innocent, programmed to please, she pieces Sarah’s world together for the reader: not just the wider world where androids are so ubiquitous that schools have Bring Your Tech to School Days, but the seemingly less important details of playground jealousy and disconnected parents.
‘I have connection,’ Ivy observes, every time she boots up at the start of another chapter. But it is the reader who connects the pieces and sees the picture entire, including the things Ivy fails to notice: the dangerous implications of those TrooFriend bad news stories, the subtext of her inventors’ bland statements to the press, and Ivy’s own inexplicable behaviour when she thinks she cannot be seen.
Ivy is compelled to be true, but in the course of her programming, a stranger, more dangerous truth wil be revealed.
Applebaum’s novel has real bite. Sarah, its human protagonist, is not a cherubic, eternally likeable child, and she makes some terrible mistakes in the course of the novel, which come with real consequences. But then, she’s the child of a strange age – “Get with it, Dad,” she says in an early chapter, rolling her eyes. “This is the twenty-first century. Privacy is dead” – and would far rather have a dog than an android. The sharp end of Applebaum’s novel – like Mary Shelley’s, perhaps – is directed at the parents of this brave new world, or at least, the ones who shirk their responsibility toward the beings they create.
But this is also a novel about the responsibilities that friends have to one another, which are perhaps all the more vital given the capacity for parents to muck everything up. Friendship is at the heart of so many children’s novels, perhaps because it is one of the most powerful abilities children possess: think of Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, where Sara loses everything but her friends, or The Borrowers, where a friendship destroys Arrietty’s world, but ultimately saves her too. Robots are so often substitutes for workers, but here they’re being made to stand in for something frightening and beautiful: other people.
Does it have to be a nightmare? Can something redemptive come out of it? I’m so pleased that novels of this philosophical richness are still being published for children, and that they are being written by novelists as skilful and wise as Kirsty Applebaum.
The Middler and TrooFriend are both published by Nosy Crow. While you’re isolating in your own dystopian adventure, you can purchase a copy from the publisher’s website, from good old Waterstones online, or (if you’re very lucky) your local bookseller. Just don’t buy from a robot: you don’t want the world that comes with that.