Today is publication day for Daniel H. Wilson‘s new book, A Boy and His Bot. This is Wilson’s kids’ novel, and I’d say he’s off to a fantastic start.
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy for review, and I devoured it. It’s fun, evocative, features wonderful characters, and it makes you think about the real world, even as you’re transported to another one. Best of all, in this time of hyper-popular vampires, magic schools, and utter fantasy in young adult fiction, this story is reality-based.
Drawing from his background as a CMU-trained robotics expert, Wilson creates a world every bit as amazing as Harry Potter’s. Actually, even more amazing, as it doesn’t depend on magic; it all could, conceivably, come true, and therein lies the real magic.
Our down-the-rabbit hole hero is a nerdy boy named Code, who discovers the self-sustaining robotics experiment of a long-dead Native American civilization hidden in an ancient mound. After following a tiny humming bird-like robot through a rift between our world and the experimental robot one, Code meets a cast of robot characters and embarques on a quest to a Celestial City a la The Wizard of Oz to find his lost grandfather and, oh, incidentally, save the world of Mekhos.
Along the way, we’re introduced to a robot culture whose members find us humans as alien as we would them, and here’s where the book shines, by taking present day advances in robotics to their logical extremes and giving us a glimpse of the world we are actually now creating.
I caught up with Wilson on the phone to ask him about the writing of A Boy and His Bot and the ideas behind it.
On working with real concepts rather than magic:
I think that automatically makes it more fun. Even having the portal to Mekhos in the mounds-builder myth.There are all these stories that have cropped up around how these mounds appeared all over the United States. It used to be a much bigger deal than it is now, because a lot of them just got plowed over and turned into fields as settlers expanded West. But when people were first coming across these things, it was a huge deal. People had no idea how they had gotten there, and all these stories cropped up to explain it because no one actually believed that Native Americans could have built these huge monuments. And so there’s already some mystery shrouding the provenance of these mysterious mounds that are scattered all over the United States, and I really wanted to tap into that.
On the differences between robots and humans:
Showing the interplay between not only Code learning about this robot world but also the robots learning about Code and how humans work was really fun. My favorite parts in the book are when Code goes to sleep and his robot fun friend Gary digs a grave thinking that Code must be dead. And then Gary’s utter incredulity at the fact that humans go unconscious and limp for 8 hours a day.
On other science fiction robots:
Fictional constructs like Asimov’s Three Laws have always really grated against me because I feel like robots are their own thing. A robot that has to obey a human isn’t really very interesting is it? It’s just a tool. If you’re really going to learn anything from a robot, you have to let it develop on its own, and you have to let it experience the world not as a human or with a human perspective.
Are there parallels between the fictional Mekhos and real-world artificial intelligence research?
On a virtual level, absolutely. In a lot of artificial intelligence algorithms, you basically build a mathematical framework and allow an answer to evolve within it. You usually see the robot as an answer to a problem. And then you put it in this world and let all these different answers evolve and compete until the best ones win.
What a great sounding book, especially for reluctant boy middle-readers! My Bebe Boy James (a middle reader, but not a reluctant one) would probably enjoy this! I’m putting it right on my Goodreads list! Thanks for the review!
This book sounds great. I especially appreciate your point about the real magic being in this reality-based tale. Not incidentally, my biggest disappointment when I read the first Harry P novel (and the only one I read) was to discover its basis in fantasy instead of in the magic of this world.
I liked hearing Wilson’s fascination with the mounds, too.
Thanks for the review.