Somewhere Over the Robot Rainbow
After an apocalypse, TJ Klune’s mechanical heroes go searching for meaning in ‘In The Lives Of Puppets’
The fate of humanity is in the balance once again for TJ Klune, author of the 2020 New York Times best-seller, The House in the Cerulean Sea. This time the protagonist is Victor Lawson, who lives in a forest near the Scrap Yards with his adoptive father Gio, and his friends Nurse Ratchet and Rambo. Gio is a wise, loving and perfectly lifelike android; Nurse Ratchet is a large, cabinet-like mobile medical unit with a brutal bedside manner but an empathy protocol several petabytes wide; and Rambo is a small, naive and enthusiastic vacuum unit.
Living together in the forest, in a repurposed cabin and a tree house built by Gio, the odd group form a family. In the Lives of Puppets opens with them completely isolated and, though it is not initially clear what Gio knows of the wider world, the other three start by knowing nothing beyond their homestead.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
As with many excellent dramas, everything changes when a stranger enters their lives and how we view the outcome depends on whether Victor is named for optimism or irony. The adventures of the book hinge upon the family’s discovery of an extremely handsome android almost dead in the Scrap Yards. They save his life and his presence heralds the end of a temporary idyll. Whether it is the arrival of the android, Hap, or the drop of Victor’s blood on the Scrap Yard floor, something in that discovery attracts the outside world, and the gears of plot begin to turn.
As the names of the robots suggest, allusions to movie culture abound. As well as deriving his character names from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and First Blood, he loosely models the journey of the group to the “City of Electric Dreams” on The Wizard of Oz. The theme tune, which Rambo and others incessantly hum is “Heaven” from Top Hat. Of all things, that 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film survived the robopocalypse, and the whole gang memorized it.
Some of the details are deliberately counter-realistic to illustrate some unspecified point about the need for organic relations between sentient beings. Most notably, the family repair Hap with wood so that he looks more like a puppet, while both Hap and Gio have had their batteries replaced by a complex wooden gear system finished off with a drop of Victor’s blood. And blood also stands for some ineluctable humanity that some in the book prize and others, dangerously, hate.
Klune is personally committed to “accurate, positive queer representation in stories.” Though there is queerness in In the Lives of Puppets, what interests Klune more is the ability of an overwhelmingly electronic society to embrace the various types of love; not just eros, but philia and agape too. The book demonstrates an unassuming simplicity, but occasionally it veers into either implicit or explicit philosophy.
Borat Sagdiyev gives us no insight into the customs of Kazakhstan, Mr. Ed tells us little about the equine condition, and Pinocchio gives us no insight into the feelings of carved toys. The androids, robots, computers and machines portrayed In the Lives of Puppets are inescapably human, but, in the end, so is its audience.