Alastair Chisholm’s debut Orion Lost is one of the books that really embodies the shift in children’s sci-fi to being more about exploring the inner world, reactions and behaviours of characters to danger and struggles in futuristic context, in his sophomore offering Adam- 2, Alastair has now incorporated the very concept of being human.
Adam is a good boy. His father told him to stay in the basement, and he has dutifully carried out his daily routine since then…
But one day, two young teens break into his father’s house and Adam feels compelled to leave to help them… and discovers that the Edinburgh he left above has changed immensely in the last two hundred years.
Sentient robot, artificial intelligence tales are not new, especially in the wake of the research over the last century into robotics and making smarter, useful and more humanoid machines, and we seem to have a universal human quality that makes us anthropomorphise and applying humanity to things whether they be balls of gas in space, or lumps of play dough, and indeed by applying human qualities to other things, we are actually exploring in a safe way what we are ourselves.
Adam- 2 is a remarkably beautiful tale in this vein exploring what it means to be human, or indeed what sentience truly means. In this way Adam- 2 is perfect for fans of Kirsty Applebaum’s Troofriend which also explores the humanity of sentience and how we treat machines, though in Chisholm’s hands we are taken to a much darker place within a post-apocalyptic world.
As with Orion Lost, in Adam-2 there is a wealth of cinematic inspirations from Pinocchio to AI (itself a sentient robot Pinocchio retelling), iRobot, Bicentennial Man, Mad Max and particularly for me, I feel strong influences from the Terminator series meets Reign of Fire although here the dragons are actually robots.
Much as in Reign of Fire the survivors of the robot-human war are huddled in a Old World stronghold trying to survive against continuous attacks by various robotic funks. I especially loved the way Alastair took time to remind us of the quiet ways people retained and reinterpreted human history & culture for the new world such as through the Midwinter Festival and handing down of muddled oral retellings to children of old stories such as Burke & Hare and Finn MacCool adapted, as they should be, to reflect the world around them.
Central to the book is the truth that decisions and choices have consequences, and with great power comes great responsibility.
This is then tempered with the fallibility of decisions made when tired, war-weary, angry and blindly determined of our own way or ‘side’.
Through Adam and Linden’s dual narratives we are able to observe the self-destructive nature of humanity hungry to preserve only what they value at that time rather than endeavouring to see the bigger picture.
Chisholm highlights and explores the discrimination and bigotry both subtle and obvious against those who are different, especially to those who seem to straddle two worlds or indeed see that the binary nature of this conflict is a fraud- Adam’s artificial sentience, Linden’s non-binary self, the Cailleach’s neutrality, but how there are good people who understand, empathise and accept, and we then know there is hope even in the darkest of decisions and the bleakest of situations.
The danger of creating an enemy based on Otherness, by focusing our hate and frustrations onto another apparently different from ourselves is that we forget or repress the things that we are doing wrong or worse allow to cause further harm because we justify it as our identity, but we don’t have to be so rigid. Accepting differences doesn’t endanger or negate who we are.
We can… alter our programming.
And for those who say we cannot, there is an incredibly genius approach within the writing which even caught me out particularly because I read most of this aloud as a bedtime story. This is the first time I have ever seen the pronouns Ze and Hir used in middle grade. I have always been a supporter and ally, to people of gender fluidity and/or non-binary and the choice of pronouns and do my best to listen, be observant and thoughtful, though I admit, I did wonder why in a children’s book that Alastair didn’t choose the more comfortable to parse they/them.
Of course I forgot this wasn’t about maintaining the reader comfort, its about challenging their edges and this whole book is about identity which shouldn’t and cannot be defined nor limited by others’ ‘comfort’. As I eventually stopped pausing and stumbling over ze and hir and it began to flow more naturally, the metaphor hit home embarrassingly hard and how easy it is to adapt and incorporate, even if you do feel clumsy or ‘self aware’ at first; how simple it is to include and represent fully, how natural and unaware that quickly becomes and how valuable that shift can be to the people around us.
Whether that shift is about gender, gender fluidity, or where we stand on conflicting issues it is acceptance, respect and love for others should ultimately be in our hearts if we expect the same in return.
Adam-2 is an incredibly powerful book wrapped up in an post-apocalyptic rageful, grief-stricken and tired survivor society again JUST pushing the line on the comfort of middle grade but tenderly holding hands and hearts firmly to guide them through the emotional journey.
Chisholm just gets better and better.
Adam-2 Alastair Chisholm is published by Nosy Crow