‘There’s a robot in the garden,’ my wife, Amy, informed me.
This, followed by some bickering between Amy and her husband, Ben – she’s left the gate open; he’s failing to maintain the house – is how A Robot in the Garden begins.
The robot’s four foot two tall, two feet wide, boxy, squat and shoddy. ‘…he looked like the very picture of a school project’. Ben’s sent out to talk to him.
I stopped a little way from him and paused. I was unsure how to begin a conversation with a robot. Though we’d never had one in the house while we were growing up, I’d known friends who did, and it was generally reckoned that they weren’t so bothered about greetings as long as they had a job to do. They were mostly domestic servants – shiny crome and white-plastic artists’ dummies who pottered round your house doing the vacuuming and making breakfast, and now and then maybe picking up your children from school. My sister had one and my wife wanted one, but I’d never seen the need with only the two of us in the house. Cheaper ones were available, too, which were not as shiny and had less functionality. These might only iron your shirts and take your recycling out. But I’d never seen one like this. Even the cheap robots weren’t this shabby.
The only information Ben manages to get from the robot is that his name is Tang and he seems to think it’s August. (It’s September.)
After a week of Tang sitting in the garden watching the horses in the next field, Amy decides she’s had enough. She wants an android, not a battered, broken robot. She also wants Ben to get a job and do more around the house. But not cook, she doesn’t like his cooking.
‘But I don’t understand why we need an android for the house. I could do all those other things.’
‘Yes, yes, you could. But you don’t do you?’
‘That’s not fair, Amy, I do stuff around the house.’
‘I take the bins out.’
‘You took the bins out two weeks ago.’
‘Yes, when the rubbish collection was due.’
‘Ben, the bins need taking out every few days.’
‘That’s ridiculous; they don’t fill up that quickly.’
‘That’s because I take them out!’
Ben sets about cleaning Tang and discovers a plate on his ‘undercarridge’ with some half legible words on it. Of course Amy catches Ben with his head ‘up a robot’s arse’, adding to the tension in the house. This only gets worse when Tang wakes them in the middle of the night repeatedly calling Ben’s name, then starts following first Ben and then Amy around.
Things come to a head after Ben overhears Amy on the phone to his sister/her best friend, Bryony:
‘And Ben’s talking about flying off to California to get it fixed. It’s a robot gap year, that’s what it is, but he’s thirty-four years old. He shouldn’t be backpacking, he should be getting a career and having a child, surely?’
This is the first Ben’s heard about Amy wanting a child. It’s not long before she’s leaving him, telling him she’s filing for divorce. Still grieving for his parents and now for his lost marriage, Ben decides he’s going to show Amy and his sister that he can do something; he’s going to California with Tang to get him fixed.
What follows is a hilarious road trip across three continents, taking in a robot sex motel, some of the world’s best robotics engineers, and a very dark story at the centre of it all.
Tang’s a great creation; he’s very child-like – some of his tantrums are hilarious (easy to say when you’re not the one dealing with them), and watching Ben learn to be responsible for another sentient being is an interesting experience (thank goodness it isn’t a child!).
The story of Ben and Amy’s divorce is another interesting strand to the novel. This – as well as the Ben/Tang story – could easily have descended into the overly sentimental but Install does a great job of veering away from this and from the predictable. Ben’s journey – both literal and metaphorical – is convincing and the end of the novel is all the more satisfying for feeling realistic.
I absolutely loved A Robot in the Garden. It’s good fun, it’s got a lot of heart but it also has some serious points to make about societal divisions and the way in which big corporations work. Oh, and try not to read the later chapters in public or you’ll end up crying in a coffee shop.
I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Install to the blog to answer some questions about Ben and Tang.
Where did the idea for Tang, Ben and Amy come from?
The idea for Tang came out of a conversation with my husband one night about the awfulness of newborn nappies. He said they had an ‘acrid tang’, and I said that sounded like a robot from East Asia, though I have no idea why! Overnight the idea played around in my head and by morning I knew the robot would be bashed up and neglected and on the run, with a best friend called Ben who himself had problems. Then Amy and the rest of Ben’s family presented themselves as something to provide antagonism, but always the hope of reconciliation.
Tang is quite childish at times (which is hilarious when you’re not the parent dealing with his behaviour); did you intend to make him child-like from the beginning of the writing process?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that’s what I intended, as such, it was just how he always seemed to me. Before having my own baby I had very little experience with small children, so I was in a sense writing these elements of Tang in a vacuum. I just had to go with my gut and hope these characteristics felt authentic to the reader. My son (a toddler) now demonstrates similar behaviour to Tang from time to time though, which is reassuring!
A Robot in the Garden seems to be set slightly in the future in a time when robots are commonplace in the home; how did you go about creating a world where this was believable?
When I try and explain Tang to people who haven’t read the book I say for Ben’s world it’s like the equivalent of him having an old mobile phone when everyone else around him has a smartphone. This only works for the look of the AI in the novel, however. I was determined that everything else in the world should be the same as it is now, or at least that any advances would be logical. I’m a big fan of technology and try to pay attention to where it seems to be going, so it was relatively easy to see where robotic engineering might be focussed. I also knew absolutely that I didn’t want the AI in the novel to be a warfare application – I wanted a more optimistic view, and one that is perhaps more accessible those outside the military.
For the darker elements of AI use in the novel I drew from interests I hold elsewhere. More below.
The search for Tang’s creator takes him and Ben around the world; what sort of research did you do for their journey?
For some sections I drew from my own experience – as part of my gap year after uni I travelled by grayhound around the US, for example. I have also been to Japan twice and absolutely adore it. So broadly speaking I relied on my own memory for these countries.
Where I had no direct experience I did a lot of online research – photos, google maps, streetview, that sort of thing. I also did journey planners and looked at timetables for feasibility. I even had a map of the world on the wall with a bit of cotton going from one stop to another, to make sure the journey made sense.
There are some dark elements to the story, including some class distinction between robots and androids; was addressing some of the more unpleasant things in our society part of your intention?
It more just fell out like that, I think, rather than a conscious decision. I have an interest in William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, so it was probably natural that it should come out in the story. I also just feel I’d have been remiss to talk about the servitude of robots without asking ethical questions, even if that wasn’t the main point of the book.
The other dark elements are also taken from an interest in history and social justice, and since there are still inequalities in this world so I saw no reason why AI would not react the same way to difference as humans do, both in the positive and the negative.
As far as the Hotel California chapter is concerned, it seemed logical to me that it wouldn’t be long before AI found its way into the sex trade, although I confess I had intended for the episode to be more humorous than I think it has been received!
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
I’ve loved Margaret Atwood since I was a teenager – The Handmaid’s Tale taught me that science fiction need not be a) genre fiction and b) written by a man. I mean no disrespect at all to the genre, I spent much of my formative years reading it and it holds a firm place in my heart, but it does still seem to be considered unusual for a woman to write anything sciencey. It is often assumed that ARITG is a children’s book because I am a mother writing about a robot, and I have wondered whether the same would be said if I were a father instead. I digress.
Secondly I adore Jane Austen, because she is as good a teacher in writing observational comedy as I could ever hope for. And I love how she makes ordinary events extraordinary.
Thirdly I am utterly and completely inspired by JK Rowling, because as far as I am concerned she is the queen of character creation and I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I could keep that many in my head at one time. I have also never been so haunted by a book as I was by The Casual Vacancy. Truly traumatised. She is also a favourite because of the effort she puts into giving extra to readers, and for the use she has made of her platform for charitable causes.
Thanks to Deborah for a great Q&A and for Transworld for the review copy of the book. This is part of the blog tour for A Robot in the Garden, details of the other blogs involved are below.