Writer, Illustrator, Philosopher
Perhaps the most plausible thing about Samantha Schweblin’s disquieting novel is the cavalier way in which people invite privacy-invading technology into their lives. The setting is not especially futuristic: kentuki are the new must-have gadget sweeping the world; you become the “keeper” of a little furry pet-sized robot, which might take the form of a rabbit, mole, dragon, crow, but is basically a camera on wheels, remotely piloted by some anonymous user (a “dweller”) somewhere else in the world. And this is the disquieting thing: dwellers and keepers are strangers to each other. It is a sort of blind-date, where either party might turn out to be a thief or a pervert or a blackmailer, or simply a lonely old man or a curious child.
The story progresses by short chapters, each of which is dedicated to a different “connection” between two parts of the world – Peru, Germany, Mexico, Croatia, among other places. Some connections are one-offs, self-contained short stories, while others recur periodically through the book, building up their narrative to some (often not very comforting) climax or revelation.
All of this provides rich soil for exploring a range of philosophical and psychological themes. The anonymous status of the “dweller” seems almost a metaphor about the fundamental mystery of otherness and the problem of other minds. Do we ever really know someone? What is going on behind the eyes of the people we love? There is the fascination of voyeurism: why do some prefer to “dwell” in other’s lives rather than live their own? For, apart from the capacity to chirp or tweet or growl, the kentuki do not come with a means of communication. This can be circumvented, of course – examples include Ouija boards, written notes held up to the camera, agreeing that turning left means “yes” or a chirp is a “no” – the onus generally lying with the keepers to initiate such communication. Or else some determined dweller might use the clues of their keeper’s surroundings to track them down – and all the varied consequences of that breach of “privacy” that this might entail. Though even some of those who resist the temptation to remove the veil of anonymity go on to establish tender relationships with their kentuki, which perhaps speaks to our tendency to imbue animals and even inanimate things with our own projected human motives and qualities.
Another interesting feature of this keeper-dweller dynamic is that once a connection breaks – either by letting the kentuki’s battery run down, or by through deliberate severance by keeper or dweller – it cannot be re-established, which provides the author a means of exploring the fragility and precariousness of human relationships. Although of course, we might also read this as a comment on the built-in-obsolescence of much modern-day technology (the disconnected kentuki is subsequently “dead”, and good for nothing but the junkyard).
Overall, then, it’s a fascinating, clever and artful little book, and it’s quite extraordinary how much material Schweblin is able to draw from this simple idea; the results of which are always intriguing, sometimes moving, and often unnerving.
Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, published by WoodPig Press, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.
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