Fiction Reviews

In the Lives of Puppets

(2023) T. J. Klune, Tor, £18.99, hrdbk, 421pp, ISBN 978-1-529-08802-1


This is a very pleasant fantasy set in a future world populated mostly by intelligent machines, robots, and androids. It is gentle rather than thrilling, and enjoys a cast of interesting characters who are living a simple life in a world that is far more complex than they know.

As explained in the prologue, whilst walking through the forest one day Giovanni Lawson came across an abandoned house. He repaired and improved it, built other rooms amongst the branches of the neighbouring trees, and it became his home. One day a man and a woman came through the forest and asked his help to guard their baby as they were being pursued; they promised the baby they would come back as soon as they were able but, in the end, they never returned. Giovanni named the boy Victor and became his father.

Although deep in the forest, the house is not far from the Scrap Yards, where all sorts of material and old equipment is dumped. This is very useful for Giovanni as he is an inventor and creator of things; it helped with building his home and provided him with many things he could restore to working order. Giovanni and Victor live alone in their home, never leaving the area; in particular, they never see anyone or anything else. Victor has happily accepted that his father is not a human but a very human, free-thinking android, one whose old battery had failed and been replaced by a wooden heart with metal gears, activated by the occasional drop of Victor’s blood.

In time Victor has also become a tinkerer with things and has rescued and repaired a couple of robots he had found dumped at the Scrap Yards; with both he had freed them of their original programming and left them sentient and able to lead their own lives. The first of these is Nurse Ratched (Nurse Registered Automaton To Care, Heal, Educate, and Drill); she is intelligent, with a sharp tongue and a very acerbic, if not sadistic, attitude. The second is Rambo, a small, circular vacuum cleaner (think of a Roomba with many more features); he is eternally naive, anxious yet does not understand real danger when he is in it, and incapable of remaining silent (even when it is essential they remain unseen and unnoticed - as they were to find out later on). By now Victor is a young man and the three of them are inseparable friends.

Despite being repeatedly told by his father to keep away from the Scrap Yards, Victor continues to visit them and one day rescues another scrapped robot. Again he repairs it, allowing it to become sentient, to become its own self. This one is in the form of large, powerful man and, from the few letters barely visible on his chest, they name him Hap. Their new friend was originally disorientated, had clearly had a violent past (they decide Hap stands for Hysterically Angry Puppet), but is now very peaceful and appreciated the beauty of the world around him. He soon becomes very protective of Victor. (To my mind he looks like Drax The Destroyer, as played by Dave Bautista in Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Unfortunately, whilst rescuing Hap, Victor had triggered an alarm and on their next visit to the Scrap Yards they find it being investigated by featureless robots, smooth men as Victor calls them, who had arrived in an airship, the Terrible Dogfish. They have never seen such things before and so, realising the danger, they run quickly back to the house. Giovanni was already aware of the situation; after all, he had recognised Hap as one of his earlier creations. Hiding Victor and his robot friends in a secret underground bunker, Giovanni faces the smooth men when they locate the house. The Authority had sent them and they have recognised him as the long-missing Gio (General Innovation Operative) and order him to return with them to the City of Electric Dreams. Having escaped from the City once, he has no intention of returning and being reprogrammed; instead he rips out his wooden heart and crushes it. They load his inert body onto the airship and leave.

Although with no idea where the City of Electric Dreams might be, indeed without knowing anything of the world outside of his immediate area in the forest, Victor decides they must find Giovanni, rescue him, and restore him. And never underestimate the determination of a young man rescuing his father!

But there is so much that none of them know. Long ago, whilst obeying their orders to keep the world safe, the robots had realised that the greatest threat to the world was the humans that had created them. They warned the humans what would happen if they did not take better care of the world but this fell on deaf ears. So they did what they had to do - they eradicated the human race. There had not been a human on the face of the planet for a very long time. Before being scrapped, Hap had been a HARP (Human Annihilation Response Protocol) and his kind had been created to do the deed.

As they go out into the world on their rescue mission, Victor and his friends are woefully ignorant and in a dangerous world where any human would be killed on sight. They have no idea how anything in the world works, where they are going, and let alone what to do if they ever get there. They will meet such strange and enigmatic robots as the Coachman, the Doorman, and the Blue Fairy. But will they survive, let alone succeed? Victor has just one advantage - nobody knows that there is still a living human.

The book is very nicely written: I found it easy to imagine the scenes and get to know the characters. It is long, with over four hundred pages, and there is not a lot to the plot. The story is told slowly and it feels slow, especially early on, leaving me wondering for some time if anything at all was going to happen. However, it did not feel as if the book was stuffed with extra text just to increase the page count, instead it was interestingly detailed and told me much of the characters and their setting, especially their camaraderie, and this was enjoyably done.

Despite being slow, the story progressed in a gentle way and it carried me along as it gradually sped up a little (though rarely more than that). I wondered how a single human would fare against a world of robots, one that was intent on wiping out his kind, but the story worked out well and the plot held together. The end was fitting and believable for, essentially, the story was about love and families more than anything else. An enjoyable, well written tale.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's take on In The Lives of Puppets.


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