The Big Idea: Daniel Hope
If you spend your whole life thinking about death, are you even really living? Author Daniel Hope brings us some excellent existential questions like this in the Big Idea for his newest novel, The Inevitable. Follow along as he guides you through a robot’s, and in a sense a human’s, attempt to survive in a future world.
Despite the fact that robots aren’t human, they are useful for telling very human stories. They offer a way to let us reflect on human experience from an outside perspective. While current examples of artificial intelligence, like Chat-GPT, aren’t actually very intelligent outside of a very narrow skillset, the robots of science fiction get close enough to human intelligence that the quirks of humanity are highlighted.
When I was young, I sympathized with the robots I found in books and movies. Like them, I didn’t fully understand the humans around me, and I found that most of the time I was replicating the emotions and reactions of others rather than expressing what was going on inside my head. That’s why it seemed natural to make the protagonist of my book a robot. Even if neither of us understood the humans around us, we could at least explore together.
There are still plenty of differences between me and Tuck, though. He’s a very old robot, living in the far future, and I’m definitely not. But his primary concern in life will be familiar to most humans: Tuck is afraid to die.
The value of life is a major theme of The Inevitable. Tuck isn’t sure what it means to be alive or to die as a robot, so he’s also very preoccupied with what it means for humans to die. He’s haunted by the deaths he has caused, mostly unintentionally, and it affects the way he interacts with humans and the choices he makes for himself.
When we meet Tuck, he’s been surviving alone for over 100 years in a galaxy that doesn’t contain anyone like him. Not anymore, anyway. He’s very accustomed to looking out for himself and avoiding humans as much as possible. He travels from planet to planet trying to find the parts he needs to repair himself, but it’s not a sustainable pattern given the toll it’s taking on his body. He’s falling apart faster than he’s fixing himself, a predicament anyone over the age of 40 will recognize.
Which leads to another aspect of the value of life that the book explores. Even if you’re not dying, you might not be living. At least, not living well.
The thing that a character like Tuck allows, which would be difficult to portray with a human, is a view of what life would be like for a human if they could live indefinitely. A robot could theoretically keep going forever because they’re repairable and their parts are replaceable. But what would happen if a person tried to take the Ship of Theseus approach to their body and their life? What seems like a blessing at first could quickly become a curse.
Robots aren’t the only ones that can get caught in a feedback loop. Humans do it, too. So many of us spend each day pursuing what we’ve been told is absolutely necessary at the expense of really living. We work at terrible jobs because we need the money. We stay in toxic relationships because we feel like there’s no way out. We postpone a dream because other needs get in the way.
Over time, and reluctantly at first, Tuck finds a small family of his own, which begins to change his outlook on life. “Found family” is another major theme of the book, and robots are excellent at exploring this aspect of humanity because they don’t have a biological family.
Tuck’s little band of misfits are all bound by their own circumstances, just like Tuck. There’s another artificial intelligence even more vulnerable than Tuck, a very capable woman who is adept at survival but not at human connection, and a young soldier who doesn’t really want to be one. With their help, Tuck begins to explore the idea of self-determination. Though he has technically been free for a long time, he hasn’t been able to decide what he wants to do or be because he’s always on the run from humans who think he’s a relic, a collectible, or a walking pile of recyclable resources. When a wealthy and ruthless woman approaches Tuck with a very attractive offer, essentially granting him the ability to repair himself indefinitely and stop running away from everything, he can’t refuse. But he soon starts to realize that her offer comes at a great cost. The promise of freedom comes with shackles.
If you want more than reflection on the meaning of life, you’ll be pleased to discover that The Inevitable also has plenty of action to punctuate the themes. Tuck and his friends perform a series of dangerous missions for his wealthy benefactor, including battles, chases, and even a big heist, but all the while Tuck is trying to figure out what it means to both live and die, and whether a robot can do either of those things.
Even though you’ve never been involved in a firefight aboard a space cruiser (I assume), you’ll still find that the plight of this bedraggled robot is all too familiar because, at some level, we’re all just trying to survive.