She’s done it again. Kirsty Applebaum has once again taken a genre that had certain associations of content, style and readership and flipped the expectations on their head with heart and character-driven MUST READ story.
The Middler reframed dystopia for Middle Grade now TrooFriend challenges wider thinking of Sci-Fi and shows how it can be accessible at MG and ‘person’-centric drama with a technological twist.
Taking the vision and darkness of Black Mirror within the familiar family setting and a twist on Pinocchio, Kirsty explores the ethics of AI, parenting, and what it means to be alive in this fascinating book.
Ivy is a robot child, designed to look as lifelike as the technology allows, designed to act not quite as lifelike as a real child. this is because real children can be mean, can bully, can be spiteful, can lead their friends into temptation, can isolate and leave others out, can hurt. A TrooFriend is not supposed to do any of those things, they are supposedly the perfect playmate for your child, well, in this case Sarah, the child of affluent, well meaning but busy and distracted parents.
The problem begins when Ivy’s programming begins to become more real, and observes Sarah’s behaviours, there is a yearning, a sadness and a darkness there as the news becomes saturated with tales of TrooFriends turning jealous, spiteful, even violent, just like the children they are supposed to replace.
Is this programming or sentience and what does it say about humanity, is there a place for intelligence like Ivy?
No Ivy, you do have real feelings. I saw you when you were looking at the rainbow. And all these things-why would you take them if you didn’t have feelings about them
Getting readers to think of AI and the ideas of Pinocchio becoming a real boy through AI isn’t a new idea, if we consider the movies Bicentennial Man and A.I Artificial Intelligence (which in turn was a project Stanley Kubrick had been working on since the 1980s) and I’ve also seen female AI having concepts of yearning and breaking their own code to be more ‘human’, and indeed through the Channel 4 series Humans the concepts of fighting back against being used & equally displacing human jobs and value.
However so much of that SFF exploration is adult and often with explicit undertones whilst this story is told in a much more near-contemporary, accessible for children and down to earth setting and through this young girl Android we further explore what it is to be human not through a grand desire for love or a mother but negotiating the nuances of friendship and peer interaction which can be incredibly difficult and traumatic for children .
The premise is certainly rather Black Mirror with its ideals of protecting your child from others lies, bullies, etc and the programming going rogue and posing a danger as the robot replacements begin to exhibit, ironically, human child tendencies of resentment, retaliation, unkindness and envy especially the desire to have things of their own.
“Wouldn’t she be better off just asking someone new round for tea on Saturdays? Someone real?”
“But with a TrooFriend we won’t need to worry about bullying or anything will we? We’ll know her Friend is being nice to her, all the time.”
Exploring the catch 22 that for robots to be more lifelike, unpalatable behaviours are more likely to surface.
The desire to protect your family is natural and strong for adults despite the need for experience to build resilience for later life, and the real world technology that follow this feel increasingly dark, controlling with loss of autonomy for the child from fear (and indeed one form has been explored in the cult Black Mirror) and a virtual friend could be appealing in the world where children are subject to vicious emotional spitefulness and sometimes physical too, to desire to protect and save your child from that is understandable- and yet then the risk in the wrong minds is it protecting your child from ‘unsuitables’ ( and the darkening definitions) and how that gradually we lose sight of the value and experience of human interaction in all its glorious messiness.
Shirley-mum turns around. our optical receptors meet each others for 0,146 seconds. she quickly turns back and reduces the volume
Yet equally it reminds the reader of how children are often treated as unthinking unfeeling robots. This is explores in two ways;
Through Sarah and her parents’ general self absorption, dismissal of her friendships and her unhappiness at the arrival of Ivy ignoring Sarah’s need for love, presence and understanding instead of the ultimate ‘safe’ screen time so parents can ‘get on’ with their lives.
This is also amplified in how Ivy, like a real child, observes far more than she is given credit for, the sneaking behaviours of Sarah’s mum when the robot crisis is unfolding, and her growing anxiety at how things are being ‘hidden’ and badly so, in plain sight. Indeed she herself falls into this trap as she struggles when Sarah notices belongings are missing leading to Ivy’s lie.
here I am outside in the rain, going to the chip shop with an android who pretends to have human feelings so that I can develop into a well-balanced adult. I mean, where would you rather be?
I think this book couldn’t be any more timely and will resonate with children watching their families worrying but put on a brave face when they are perfectly aware of emotional turmoil and frustrated perhaps because it is not spoken about to ‘protect’ them.
There is so much that can be drawn & thought about BUT, importantly it can also just be enjoyed for fun. TrooFriend is so CLEVER for that, but more so in that it validates and explores so many everyday worries and fears that children can have about their friends, families and selves.
Outstanding work Kirsty for making me think differently about Sci-Fi and ‘Robot’ Books!
TrooFriend by Kirsty Applebaum is published by Nosy Crow.
Thank you so much to Nosy Crow and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy 💜 And doesn’t Littlefae’s dress look awesome in this banner? (real pic not photoshopped!)