Gay teenagers have a tough enough time with adolescence that we don’t need to throw more obstacles in their way, right? Along comes debut novelist Tim Floreen, once a gay teenager himself, who’s concocted a high-octane thriller whose protagonist, Lee Fisher, is the closeted son of the conservative president of the United States. And, oh yeah, the hunky fellow student he’s falling in love with at their creepy boarding school may or may not be a robot. Meanwhile, the Secret Service agents assigned to follow Lee are watching the proceedings very closely. 

Floreen_Jacket Suffice it to say that by the end ofWillful Machines, the American public has a vested interest in whether Lee and Nico Medina, a mysterious new student from Argentina, are a couple. Floreen’s novel tackles heady questions of identity, the supposed uniqueness of human consciousness, and whether beings of artificial intelligence can feel in the same way that humans do. “One of the most interesting aspects of artificial intelligence is how it changes how we think of ourselves,” Floreen says. “It’s pushing us to think of ourselves in a completely different way. As we create true artificial intelligence consciousness, it creates this existential crisis: wait, if you think they have consciousness, where does that leave us? Aren’t humans somehow different from machines?” 

Those are the kinds of questions that could easily deaden a more ponderous novel, but Floreen writes teen fiction because, as he puts it, he’s partial to stories that have “a lot of heightened emotion and drama and adventure.” A young-adult writer can “turn up the volume on everything in such a satisfying way,” he says. Is Floreen prepared to turn up the volume by going on the record as an advocate of interspecies love? “I’m not sure!” he laughs. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hopefully we have a ways to go.” 

Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.