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Cog is a twelve year old boy. Cog is also a robot, his name short for Cognitive Development. Cog learns. Everything. He especially likes learning about platypuses. His peaceful life with Gina, the scientist guiding his learning, is interrupted when Cog makes a very good choice that leads to a very bad place. One where Cog discovers the truth about what he is and that the power to decide who he is, ultimately, rests with him.
I think this is going to be on my Hugo ballot next year. I finished it this morning and Greg van Eekhout, whose short stories and other work are essential by the way, manages multiple impossible tasks here. Firstly, this is a fantastic middle grade novel, writing to his audience instead of at them. There are complex ideas here, of race and identity and emotion, all expressed through the lens of a very smart 12 year old robotic boy who likes platypuses and doesn’t want his brain removed. It’s elegant writing, trusting its audience and challenging them at the same time.
Then there’s the way the novel engages with late stage capitalism. Before you all start running for the doors, don’t worry, no lectures here or in the book. Rather, a sequence where the villains explain why they do what they do and the artificial boy they’re hunting realizes that there are lots of different kinds of programming. This is, viewed one way, character driven action SF. Viewed another, this is cyberpunk at its best, full of fluid identities, personal conflict and the odd really cool car chase.
Van Eekhout also gives his cast of five robotic fugitives pretty strong arcs given the short page count. ADA, Cog’s ‘sister’ struggles with the imposed definition of her as a weapon and that leads to two of the novel’s best emotional beats. Proto, Cog’s dog, is adorable, determined, brave and fighting as dark a future as ADA. Car, their increasingly less reluctant getaway vehicle is equal parts prissy and delighted at the thought of getting to misbehave. Trashbot is one of the weirdest, most single minded and endearing characters I’ve read this year. Never before has cleaning a garage been a heroic moment. Here, it makes your heart sing.
But Van Eekhout’s biggest coup is in the way the novel explores massive stakes and keeps them personal. Cog, early on, identifies the sensation of being overwhelmed with information as ‘cheesing. Brilliantly, this comes when he realizes how many varieties of cheese exist and, in a moment that ensures him a place in my pantheon of heroes, attempts to buy All of it. That sensation, joy mixed with awe with a frisson of terror, is something we all feel at times and it’s the rudder van Eekhout uses to steer the novel into land. The end game here is the book’s finest hour, taking massive, world-shaking ideas and presenting them through the lens of a small, determined boy who has decided who he’s going to be. The singularity the novel unleashes is hopeful, ragged, untidy and glorious. It’s a moment of perfect potential and it leaves Cog, and his friends, and us, in the same place. Cheesing both at what’s to come and the journey getting there.