This first novel--set in an orphanage at some future time when robot-like appliances fill the kitchen but a 19th-century attitude prevails toward the indigent young and a far-flung empire--is distinguished by incisive writing and a strong conscience informed by both irony and a rueful view of reality. The dozen orphans live a Dickensian workhouse existence, overworked and underfed while the ""Worthies"" who ""care"" for them feast and preach sanctimoniously (in an echo of the worst sort of imperialism) about the children's future role among ""natives."" Then dour Rev. Slipper introduces Archibald, an experimental robot. In lieu of real education, Archie dictates reams of unrelated facts to the children and beats them into submission; meanwhile, a gleam in his eye presages Archie's ultimate role as the ally who makes the children's rebellion a success. Smith's tale is a dark one, full of cartoon cruelty made real and with a nightmarishly suspenseful cat-and-mouse sequence near the end. It also has some splendid humor (especially in the Worthies' stupidities and in Archie's monologues) and memorably unique characters. It's an effective symbolic plea for children. Although Smith introduces some intriguing elements that she never really develops and provides a rather feeble conclusion, this is a notable debut from an unusually fecund imagination.