Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the humanity in artificial intelligence

runaway robotIan McKewan caused a bit of a stir the other week over claims that his new novel, Machines Like Me, about artificial intelligence (ie robots) was not science fiction, remaining firmly in the genre of literary fiction. He also claimed that future writers might look at the ‘human dilemmas’ posed by artificial intelligence.

As readers know, writers have long-looked at robots or artificial intelligence as a way of examining our own humanity, starting perhaps with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley…and spinning onwards through HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and beyond. But the snootiness over whether something is sci-fi just because it contains robots luckily doesn’t infiltrate children’s fiction. What’s always rather startling, and somewhat refreshing, is that despite holding a market-share of about a third of print books, the children’s book shelves are still arranged by age rather than genre. Thus Enid Blyton’s adventure capers sit neatly next to Tony Bradman’s historical fiction, Holly Smale’s contemporary fiction sits next to SF Said’s science fiction, David Walliam’s comic mass market books sit adjacent to Robert Westall’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, shelved under C for those in doubt, is a master of comic fiction, and his latest adventure for children, Runaway Robot, definitely speaks to the humanity in us all.

Alfie, very much human, but with a bionic hand, discovers a robot with a missing leg in his local Airport Lost Property. The robot happens to be a giant robot called Eric, with manners as good as a butler, and a demeanour as chivalrous as a knight. The only problem is that he takes instructions quite literally, and is rather large. Alfie and Eric have much in common. Alfie is boyishly charming, Eric is gallant almost to a fault. Both have a missing body part, and both are missing the memory of how they lost their missing parts. Together, they try to solve the clues without leaving too much destruction in their wake.

Cottrell-Boyce writes with confidence and flair, spilling his story into the reader’s head with artistry and comedy, so that readers are equally amused and enthralled, but also touched with a large brush of heart. He has a keen eye for human quirks, and seeing them play out both robotically as well as in humans, is rather fun. And Steven Lenton’s illustrations create that extra dimension of humour.

It is Alfie’s distinctive voice that propels the fiction forwards – written in first person it is as if Alfie himself is telling the reader the story, perhaps sitting next to you or by your bedside, with modern phrases slung in, such as ‘oh my days,’ and the specific brand of truisms that children see when adults don’t – such as the scene in which Alfie is surrounded by his old schoolmates wanting to look at his new bionic hand, and he describes one of them as ‘one of those people who thought the news always understated things so you had to exaggerate to get the truth’. There is also a spectacular twist on how Alfie is telling the story towards the end, which took even this experienced reader by surprise.

What’s more, Alfie is surrounded by a super cast of characters, both in the Limb Lab, where other children with missing limbs are helped by a super scientist and a 3-D printer, including in particular, Shatila, a girl who suffered the loss of her foot by stepping on a mine in Bosnia, and who speaks with extra punctuation. She’s a fantastic character, clearly thought-out, and an attribute to the human feel of the book.

There’s a specific passage in the book about the different ways of walking, which is clever as it speaks to how a good writer depicts character: everything from a person’s walk to their speech and mannerisms forms their character, and the more detail there is, the more authentic the character.

The adults are well drawn too, maybe because Cottrell-Boyce has a knack of depicting adults from a child’s perspective. Alfie sees his Mum through the prism of comfort – food, routine, boundaries and unconditional support. He sees the woman who runs Lost Property through her badge and demeanour – ‘Happy to Help’ – a complete misnomer judging by her expression.

The only flaw I found in the entire book was the profession of Alfie’s mother – in this automated world they live in, it came as a surprise that they still have postwomen.

For although the world Cottrell-Boyce has created will be familiar to readers, with schools and buses and airports, there is a sense that automation has taken over many jobs – the buses are self-driven, there are robot street cleaners and robot pizza delivery ovens, but the most comedic fun for me was Alfie’s house itself, which greets him upon arrival, tells him if he has a high heart rate (‘have you been running?’), and turns all lights and devices off at 10pm.

As with all good fiction, it is the way it makes us look within ourselves that sets this novel apart. Setting a novel in an imagined future where things can be slightly uncomfortable causes us to look at our own present and see the direction we want to go in. Do we want everything to be automated? When there’s an accident, is human error more or less acceptable than machine error?

Although Cottrell-Boyce writes with a deft touch and a comic heart, there are themes pushing up against the reader all the time – with artificial body parts, and thinking chivalrous robots, what makes us human? What possibilities are there for a machine-led future, and how much do we want it? What do we project onto the machine that tells us more about ourselves than it does about the machine?

This is a confidently written, pacey novel with a beating heart in the middle of it. Warm, funny, enjoyable – a great children’s book, whichever genre you think it is.

For age 8+ years. You can buy the book here. And I have one copy to give away. Just comment on my Facebook page below the review.