February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Intelligent Machines: Robots in Film and Teen Fiction

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You may not meet RoboCop, the Terminator, or R2D2 on the street any time soon, but the next generation of robots will represent a remarkable variety of designs and purposes. For example, the U.S. Navy is developing a six-foot-tall humanoid robot designed and equipped to fight fires at sea, and a robo-dog manufactured by Boston Dynamics can climb stairs and smoothly navigate rough terrain. A first version of JIBO—an 11”-tall personal robot that looks like a chubby plastic desk lamp and acts as personal assistant, entertainment center, automatic photographer (you smile it snaps), communications avatar, and companion—will begin to ship in December 2015. And soft robots, machines made from pliable materials that possess the elasticity of a living organism, have the potential to revolutionize the human-machine interface.

chappieOf course, Hollywood has long been ahead of the curve with a well-established tradition of movies featuring intelligent machines, and several spring releases star automated protagonists (and antagonists). In Chappie (R; releases March 6), a droid stolen from the ranks of a mechanized police force is provided with new programming and becomes the first robot with the capacity to think and feel, opening up a whole new can of worms for the human race, some of whom will do anything to ensure that this new life form remains the last of its kind. The British psychological thriller Ex Machina (R; releases April 10) centers around a young man who wins a competition to spend the week at the secluded home Ex Machinaof an internet billionaire. Once there, he discovers that he will participate in a Turing test to evaluate the capabilities of a cutting-edge artificial intelligence…contained in the form of an incredibly lifelike—and stunningly beautiful—robot girl. And Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1) reunites Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to take on a technological miscreant determined to extinguish all of mankind.

Fantastic fiction

Catch the eye of teens who love movie and TV robots with a lineup of titles that run diagnostics on coming-of-age themes and personhood conundrums while also providing plenty of gear-turning, technology-pushing, cyborg-centered action.

Who am I?

Robots5William Campbell Powell’s Expiration Day (Tor, 2014; Gr 9 Up) is set in the year 2049, when a radical decline in fertility has placed humanity on the edge of extinction. In order to prevent societal collapse and provide a sense of normality, the Oxted Corporation has developed teknoids, sophisticated androids nearly identical to human children that are leased to would-be parents. Assured by her own loving Mum and Dad that she is a flesh-and-blood “rarity,” 11-year-old Tania Deeley begins to wonder which of her contemporaries are human and which are mechanical. The book really gets interesting after she discovers the truth of her own origins. Spanning six years, Tania’s diary entries gradually and believably mature from gleefully chatty to searingly insightful, reflecting her intellectual and emotional evolution as she becomes aware of her body image, grieves deeply for a family loss, falls in love, and explores her own creativity through music and acting. However, the clock is always ticking, since all teknoids are returned to Oxted on their 18th birthdays when the lease runs out. Featuring a multifaceted heroine and brimming with real emotion, this compelling coming-of-age tale raises fascinating questions about what it means to be human.

Robots1Still reeling from the traumatic death of her father in a fire, Mila, 16, is unable to recall details from her past. She struggles to settle into life in the small Minnesota town where she and her mother have just relocated, but things begin to look up when the handsome new boy at Clearwater High asks for her number. Then she injures her arm—revealing tubes and silver wires—and her shocking past begins to come to light. Her name isn’t a shortened form of Mia Lana like her mother told her, but is actually MILA 2.0 (2013; Gr 7 Up), an acronym for Mobile Intel Lifelike Android. She is in fact a super-covert secret weapon designed and built by the government, and Mom is a project scientist who stole Mila away when she began to develop human emotions. Talk about identity crisis! There’s no time to wallow, however, since they must flee the federal agents and violent thugs who have found them and are in hot pursuit. Debra Driza’s thriller sizzles with fast-paced action, spy-style intrigue, tantalizing secrets, and a touch of romance, while also exploring themes of individuality and humanity. The second installment, Renegade (2014) is already available and Redemption pubs in fall 2015 (all HarperCollins).

“Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Robots8Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams’s short story collection inventively—and often spine-chillingly—delves into the theme of Robot Uprisings (Vintage, 2014; Gr 10 Up). Penned by adult and YA authors, including Cory Doctorow, Ian McDonald, Robin Wasserman, and Nnedi Okora for, these tales take a (mostly) futuristic tack to deal with timeless themes such as hubristic humans playing God and generating life (à la Frankenstein); the complex relationship between creator and the created; the fear of fashioning technology that will ultimately destroy us; and what it means to be human. The tone of the offerings ranges from humorous to heartbreaking and to harrowing. Today’s increasingly omnipresent technological trappings are mixed with visons of innovations-to-be—as automated cars and Roombas go rogue, artificial intelligence is repeatedly weighed against human intelligence (don’t place your money on the meatsacks), and the stakes are as high as human survival—providing a terrifying sense of this-could-be possibility.

Robots7Teens wanting to fully immerse themselves in a post-robot-apocalypse world will be mesmerized by Gregg Rosenblum’s Revolution 19 (2012; Gr 8 Up). It’s been 14 years since military robots designed to fight wars turned their weapons on their commanders, killing many, and forcing survivors to live in closely controlled cities. Some humans still remain at liberty, however, living in Freepost settlements and staying alive by scavenging food and “pre-Rev” objects and materials. When their parents are captured by a robot raiding party, 17-year-old Nick, tech-savy 13-year-old Kevin, and their 15-year-old adopted sister Cass, set off to try and rescue them. Heading for the nearest City, they discover a thriving metropolis that is nothing like they expected, a robot-run totalitarian society where they must either hide or try to live within the strict rules imposed by their oppressors. Danger lurks everywhere, but so do the beginnings of another revolution. Heavy on action and suspense, this book is followed by Fugitive X (2013) and City 1 (2015, all HarperTeen).

Robots4Oisín McGann’s Rat Runners (Open Road, 2015; Gr 7 Up) is set in a near-future London where WatchWorld, an all-powerful corporation, keeps eyes and ears on everything and everyone with constant surveillance, and Safe-Guards, half-human and half-robot sentinels, patrol the streets. Crime lords have gone underground and now rely upon teenagers—still-off-the-grid orphans able to swiftly navigate the alleyways, rooftops, and abandoned buildings that remain unmonitored (aka “rat-runs”)—to do most of their leg work. When a valuable box goes missing after a murder, a particularly fearsome gangster conscripts a crew of rat runners to track it down—Nimmo, talented con-artist, obtrude, and track-coverer; Manikin, mistress of disguises; her younger brother, hacking-whiz Fx; and Scope, brilliant at observation, supposition, and forensics. Each member of this multi-cultural cast is brought to life with his or her own personality, hidden motivations, and close-kept secrets. Clever plot twists and heart-pounding action ensue as the sought-after goods are finally revealed—it’s a technology that will change human existence—and the teens pool their skills and bind their fates together in order to survive.

Something old, something new

Robots3In Stitching Snow (Hyperion, 2014; Gr 7 Up), R.C. Lewis skillfully embroiders the familiar Snow White canvas with colorfully futuristic sci-fi circuitry. An apparent orphan, Essie, 17, lives in a mining settlement on the bleak planet Thanda, where she earns her keep by “stitching” together computer tech—focusing mostly on fixing, coding, and fiddling with the crew of seven loyal drones that she has rigged to perform the most dangerous merinium-extracting jobs. When a mysterious boy her own age crash-lands on the planet, she reluctantly agrees to help him repair his shuttle. However, Dane, who is on a quest to find the missing Princess Snow, soon makes a few connections of his own, and kidnaps Essie before launching into space. So begins an intricately plotted tale of interplanetary warfare, complex political intrigue, old secrets revealed, burgeoning romance, and a young woman who risks everything to finally face her responsibilities and free her people from a despot. Readers will enjoy echoes of the original story (a Dopey-style drone named Dimwit, for example), but they will also revel in the adventures of a unique protagonist who ultimately charts her own course. Point fans of this book to Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Feiwel & Friends, 2012) and its memorable part-human part-cyborg heroine.

Robots2Set in an alternate version of the DC Comics universe, Teen Titans: Earth One (DC Comics, 2014; Gr 10 Up) reboots and reimagines the origins of this well-known squad of adolescent superheroes. Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson’s graphic novel introduces four teens leading typically misunderstood and alienated adolescent lives in suburban Oregon who suddenly begin to experience strange powers (i.e., Tara Markov can make the earth quake, Gar Logan transforms into a beast, and Vic Stone seems to be turning into a cyborg right before their eyes). They band together to confront the uncaring (and pretty much awful) grownups in their lives and try to get to the truth of their new abilities, uncovering secrets about an alien vessel that crashed years ago (yikes, the reprehensible Dr. Stone incorporated the ship’s mysterious “living metal” into Vic’s very being) and the young alien survivor imprisoned ever since. The artwork is slick and action-packed, and the characterizations and world-building refreshingly original. In addition to the adults’ amorality, violence and mature content make this book appropriate for older readers.


Robots6Maybe a robot is destined to save the world after all…if he can ever learn to read a roadmap. The star of a large-size volume, Brian Ralph’s Reggie-12 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013; Gr 7 Up) is a robot boy who can fly, defeat all manner of giant metallic bad guys, and repeatedly save the day—all while keeping take-out pizza warm on top of his engine. This collection of short comics also features Reggie’s absentminded creator, Professor Tinkerton; Casper, a cat with a penchant for litter-box humor; and Donald-14, a robot who prefers the couch to crime-fighting, all of whom who serve up sarcasm from the peanut gallery. Illustrated with black-ink drawings, this tongue-and-cheek send up of manga classics such as “Gigantor” and “Astro Boy” has an appropriately nostalgic feel but also percolates with hilarious slapstick moments, self-deprecating humor, and a snarky 21st-century sensibility.

Publication Information

DRIZA, Debra. MILA 2.0. 2013. Tr. ISBN 9780062090362; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062090379; ebook ISBN 9780062090386.

_____. MILA 2.0: Renegade. 2014. Tr. ISBN 9780062090393; ebk ISBN 9780062090416.

Ea vol. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Tr $17.99. ebook $9.99.

LEMIRE, Jeff. Teen Titans: Earth One: Volume One. illus. by Terry Dodson. DC Comics. 2014. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9781401245566.

LEWIS, R. C. Stitching Snow. Disney-Hyperion. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781423185079.

MCGANN, Oisín. Rat Runners. Open Road. 2015. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781497665804. ebk $9.99. ISBN 9781497665729.

POWELL, William Campbell. Expiration Day. Tor. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780765338280; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780765338297; ebk $9.99. ISBN 9781466838406.

RALPH, Brian. Reggie-12. illus. by author. Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781770461321.

ROSENBLUM, Gregg. Revolution 19. 2012. Tr ISBN 9780062125958; pap. ISBN 978006212596-5; ebk $11.99. ISBN 9780062125989.

_____. Fugitive X. 2013. Tr ISBN 9780062125972; pap. ISBN 9780062125996; ebk $9.99. ISBN 9780062126009.

_____. City 1. 2015. Tr ISBN 9780062126016; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9780062126030.

Ea vol: HarperTeen. Tr $17.99. pap. $9.99.

WILSON, Daniel H. & John Joseph Adams, eds. Robot Uprisings. Vintage. 2014. pap. $15.95. ISBN 978-0-345-80363-4; ebook $11.99. ISBN 9780345803641.


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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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