"The Obsoletes," by Simeon Mills. (Photo: Skybound Books)
In 1950, when Alan Turing developed his test to check a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent human-like behavior, the practical applications seemed fairly far off. What did we need to worry about? Our Sunbeam mixer lying to us? Twelve years later, when Philip K. Dick asked if androids dream of electric sheep, the question had turned from the analytical to the existential: Not only might our mixer deceive us… it might pretend to be us. Now, reality itself has become increasingly virtual, with a handheld robot in our pockets all but making our own intelligence anachronistic. Why know anything when Siri or Google can tell you everything?
Back-dated into this existence, then, comes Simeon Mills’ debut novel “The Obsoletes” (Skybound Books, 308 pp., ★★ out of four), which supposes our real world of the early 1990s – replete with the arrival of Nirvana, Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and the onset of the slacker aesthetic – except with a notable difference: a race of robots. They look like us. They sound like us. In New York, they’re socially acceptable. In China, they’re part of the culture.
In small-town Michigan? Not so much. In fact, when a robot child malfunctions – a seemingly nice fourth-grade girl named Molly Seed, who it turns out is a “toaster” (a slur Mills borrows from the iconic sci-fi show “Battlestar Galactica”) – a local bully kills her and is celebrated.
“Following the statewide news tidbit, ‘Local Boy Prevents Robot Rampage,’ the humans of Hectorville, Michigan wanted more obsolete robots to stuff through bus windows, not fewer,” Mills writes, which makes life much harder for fraternal twin boys Kanga and Darryl Livery. Kanga is a local basketball prodigy, but still a boy in a man’s body, able to jump out of the gym but not to deal with his burgeoning emotions. Darryl is tiny and obsessed, his every thought and action imbued with the algebra of anxiety, particularly since their parents disappeared.
Author Simeon Mills. (Photo: Rajah Bose)
You may have figured out that neither Kanga or Darryl is a real boy. By the time they are teenagers, trying to make it through freshman year – when actual humans feel like Clearasil-covered automatons – social pressure, teenage love and the common weight of living have turned both benignly monstrous and terminally sullen.
“What did human kids think about all day?” Darryl ponders. “What thoughts breezed through those bloody, carefree brains, instead of the millions of tiny calculations I performed pretending to be something I wasn’t?” The exact same thing, we want to tell Darryl. Humans are more adept at self-analysis and self-delusion than any robot could ever be, starting right around puberty. What Mills is describing here, though, is also the complex reckoning of being the Other: How to both fit in and not be noticed.
It’s rich material, but it’s also so universal it feels pedantic when it should feel peculiar, which is where Mills’ novel tends to misstep. At different points, “The Obsoletes” is a pointed and satirical look at the internecine battles of high school, perfectly fit for a teen reader. Then, it’s a bit-too-on-the-nose examination of xenophobia in the United States, the robots yet another Chinese import. Then it’s a John Hughes-ian teen sex romp, replete with a cringe-worthy repressed-mom-in-a-hot-tub scene. Then, it’s a deft examination of medical ethics… and then it’s a small-town horror tale, like “The Lottery”… and then it’s “Hoosiers”…
“Being human meant getting a second chance,” Mills writes late in the book and though “The Obsoletes” ends up feeling like a book made of too many parts that don’t fit firmly together, there is something inherently charming about the effort. Mills clearly loves this world he’s created, and if his plot doesn’t quite sustain close examination, the author’s big imagination certainly does.
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