This novel's cast of troubled characters may consist largely of robots, but Winter’s (The Twenty-Year Death, 2012, etc.) melancholy family history owes more to the penetrating psychodynamics of Chekhov and Strindberg than to Isaac Asimov’s fantastic tales of artificial men. In sci-fi terms, Winter’s story recalls Ray Bradbury’s thoughtful, emotionally centered work, which was never overly concerned with the “science” half of the equation. In fact, Bradbury’s classic story “I Sing the Body Electric,” which explores the relationship between a robotic grandmother and her charges, strongly parallels Winter's setup: an isolated family of self-aware machines tends to an ailing human in a hazily described, far-flung, post-disaster future in which robots have seemingly become the dominant social force—albeit one with an uneasy relationship to its dwindling population of creators. We meet Barren Cove’s robot masters—fretful, yearning Mary; resentful, bullying Kent; and the monstrous, nihilistic Clark—through their interactions with Mr. Sapien, a new tenant, an older model machine looking for a respite from the rigors of the city. Sapien’s Nick Carraway–esque observations of the family provide an added layer of literary playfulness, but the book’s considerable power derives from its cockeyed yet unflinching confrontations with the power dynamics inherent in emotional bonds, whether between humans, smart machines, or a mixture of the two. Winter’s deft control of voice and canny vagueness about the nuts-and-bolts details of his world (a punk-rock robot bicycle/centaur girl typifies his whimsical take on sci-fi tropes) alternately draws in and unsettles the reader, effectively conveying the novel’s take on the necessity and agony of love and family—it weaves a uniquely dreamy spell, and a lingering one.
Lyrical, unexpected, and curiously affecting…a story that lodges uneasily in the heart and mind.