“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.
Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.
Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.
In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:
“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”
But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.
They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.
By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.
But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.
Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:
“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”
The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:
“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.