Hello Strange, by Pamela Morrow, is a young adult novel about artificial emotional intelligence. Logic is easy to code for—or, if not exactly easy, it follows (what are presumed to be) rational stages of thought. But logic is also limiting, and as we are an emotional species in general, then perhaps it can be said that irrationality, more than anything, is the determined reluctance to address how emotion affects both thought and behaviour.
Josie, the robot protagonist of Hello Strange, is primarily concerned with learning emotion, specifically learning the effects of strong emotion, and so it’s thematically appropriate that she spends most of her time with teenagers. Not only are these teens experiencing the normal emotional heights of adolescence, they’re also coping with the trauma of losing a parent. Josie, programmed to be of service, and inserted into the household in which these teens live, has to learn to deal with their emotions as well as her own.
The idea of a robot designed for domestic service is not a new one. Nor is it new for that service to include elements of the emotional. There have been numerous narratives, ranging from short stories to novels, about the place a robot can come to have in the home and their ability to be programmed for—exploited for—purpose. Sometimes those robots come to be loved by their human counterparts, and sometimes the robots love back. Such is the state of the trope, and authors who plan to tackle this need to do something more than repeat the trope to hold my interest.
Morrow manages this in some ways but not in others. Because robots have such a long history within the genre, it’s interesting to see just what elements of the expected authors choose to interrogate. Reading Hello Strange, it strikes me that the motivation of the central roboticist, Miles, is under-explored. An acknowledged genius, and the head of the Biologic company, Miles is the driving force behind Josie’s development. He’s also the one who decides to take her home to his family. Why does he do this? Because he wants to offload the emotional labour of parenting now that his wife is dead.
It’s clear that his three teenagers—Hunter, middle child Coel (who gets far less focus than both his siblings), and Milly—aren’t coping particularly well with their mother’s death. Milly, the youngest, is left with the memories of her mum telling her to take care of the rest of the family and is slowly crumbling under the strain, wondering if anyone was ever entrusted with taking care of her. Unfortunately, Milly’s problems—beautifully expressed in the absolutely heartbreaking short story of an astronaut she has written for school—are shoved aside, both within the family and within the narrative, in favour of focus on the eldest child. Hunter is experiencing increasing levels of anxiety, and his emotional health is becoming so compromised that his school contacts his father. Miles is completely blindsided. “Emilia wouldn’t have missed something like this,” he thinks, of his dead wife (p. 49). Possibly because she took the time to have meaningful relationships with her children. “Hunter used to tell Emilia everything. They were close,” he laments, clearly not stopping to think that he too has had seventeen years to build closeness with this poor kid (p. 116).
Hunter doesn’t tell Miles anything, and unfortunately, Miles just doesn’t seem to care enough to do anything about it himself instead of by proxy. Distancing himself from his children and their emotions is apparently a long-standing habit: “Miles goes to great lengths to avoid hostilities. Especially with his children. A strategy which says the best way to be doing something is to do nothing is the sort of strategy he can get behind” (p. 50). Dealing with the children was his wife’s job. Without her to deal with the emotions he’s so fascinated by in robots, the solution is clear: get someone else to take her place. It’s why he’s so quick to offload his son’s problems to a robot. (Not his daughter’s. Even by the end of the book, he’s still oblivious to Milly’s unhappiness.) Heaven forbid he try to connect with Hunter himself. Better to get a robot prototype to monitor the situation for him. “Just watch them. Preferably without being obvious about it. And don’t be weird. You know, strange. Report back immediately if something doesn’t look right” (p. 113).
You know, I am all for bringing in experts when the situation calls for it. But Josie isn’t an expert. She’s never interacted with anything outside of the lab. She’s barely been activated, and pretty nearly the first thing she did after her activation was to cause a security panic because elements of her programming weren’t working as expected. In fact, one of the reasons that Miles brings her to live with his family is so that Josie can learn by mimicking them on top of her domestic (surveillance) duties. I cannot emphasise how deliberately disconnected Miles is choosing to be here … but he’s disconnected from his responsibilities in a very specific way, and one which plays into the history of the domestic robot.
Such robots have always been used to take over the unpleasant chores of day-to-day living. They do the vacuuming, clean the kitchen, prepare the meals, and of course Josie does all these things. She does the unpleasant emotional chores as well, by which I mean the parenting jobs Miles is unwilling to perform himself. Making sure your kids are emotionally stable shouldn’t be treated as if it were a task like scrubbing the bathtub, but the development of the robot line for which Josie is the prototype does just that: it conflates physical and emotional labour, and treats them both as something to be delegated.
Noticeable, too, is how that delegation runs along gender lines. I mentioned Milly above, and how she was tasked (by her mother, no less) with loving her brothers and father because her mother no longer can. I mentioned Emilia, and how she was clearly the parent who provided emotional stability within the family. And then there is Josie, who Miles’ corporate partner describes as “a little too feminine” (p. 306). The subtext here is fairly clear, but what it isn’t is held up for interrogation. No-one here queries the division or commodification of emotional labour. It’s not that I want Miles to discover he’s a terrible excuse for a parent and try to make amends (which is good for me as a reader, as he never does). But I do want to see some sort of acknowledgement of what’s going on here, and without it I might as well be reading those old robot stories of robot servants from decades back.
Far more interesting is Josie herself, whose choices—and I use that word deliberately—are more considered than those of her employer. Those choices, as expected, begin to affect her functioning, as increasing her own emotional intelligence, through her interaction with the kids, causes her to essentially exceed her own programming. Unsurprisingly, Miles wonders if the glitches he perceives in her result from a problem in her purely domestic function: “Perhaps she encountered a cleaning problem that had her momentarily flustered” (p. 283, and can you tell how much I hate Miles?). He completely misses that she and Hunter are developing a romantic relationship—but what can you expect from two adolescent intelligences going through emotional upheaval together?
I’d call Josie the fourth forgotten child here, but Miles is at least paying some attention to her even if he completely misinterprets everything that’s going on in his home. I wonder if the lack of focus on this central element of the story is because of the numerous subplots. There are minor scenes of resentment running through—people who can’t afford domestic robots themselves, and an old colleague of Miles, floundering in his own career, who’s engaged in ongoing attempts of sabotage. One of these attempts involves—unbeknownst to Feine, the saboteur—a second, sophisticated robot. It’s notable that Feine fails to identify the robot as a robot but succeeds in manipulating fourteen-year-old Milly, recognising almost instantly (unlike her useless father) that she is desperate for help and affection. “He’s genuinely concerned. The shock of it. She feels it in her chest, a selfish squeeze of her frangible heart. And where she’d been hollow, she fills up again in a rush. Her cheeks colour with heat because he cares” (p. 321). Note, too, that the popular resentment against robots is that they are not commodity enough—no-one seems to actually have a problem with offloading the problems of their adolescent children onto robots. They’re just upset that more of them can’t afford to do it.
I really wish that more focus could have been spent on this point of central tension, because—with the exception of Josie—it’s easily the most interesting thing about the book.
Josie herself is a fantastic character. She has an early understanding of choice and irony, and the first real decision she makes is to ignore her programming in favour of exploration. Hello Strange doesn’t really get into the mechanics of this choice—its focus is always on emotional rather than artificial intelligence, and the question of why is reserved for questions like lying and love. This skews into the importance of interaction with others, which introduces a very real sense of humour into the narrative that’s enormously appealing. Let me give an example. Josie’s interaction with animals is a consistent theme. She is able to alter her body chemistry enough to exude sweat full of chemicals tailored to appeal to birds, cats, and dogs. Her first attempt is too successful. Cornered by a hostile dog in the Biologic offices, she accidentally overdoses it into a relaxation so complete it looks like death. Designed to be helpful, she wants to return the dog to its owner—but when the dog’s alert it tries to run away and when it’s made to sleep it looks dead, which isn’t comforting to onlookers. “Wolfie, she’s got Wolfie!” someone shrieks (p. 62). Security is called, and the dog’s owner is distraught: “There’s a plaintive cry, ‘Please, please don’t shoot Wolfie!’” (p. 63). And there’s Josie, holding this zonked-out dog, aware that it looks dead and that she is therefore failing to be useful, but equally aware if she puts it down it’ll run away and she’ll still not be useful.
There’s a decision tree and everything. It’s hilarious.
In fact, the whole book is filled with diagrams and small illustrations, page backdrops and wildly varying fonts. There’s something very frenetic about it, and all credit to the book designer because the effect is excellent. In much the same way as, for instance, Mark Z. Danielewski uses font to destabilise the reader’s expectations in his deeply disturbing House of Leaves, Morrow uses font to emphasise the emotional instabilities of her protagonists. There are quick changes and odd stand-out words and phrases which serve to heighten the hair-trigger feelings of both the characters and the target audience of teens, and it’s just very, very clever.
There are some fascinating elements in this book—beautifully presented as it is—and the humour is genuinely appealing. If Hello Strange is sometimes a little unfocused, however, well, I wonder. How much does this lack of focus contribute to the emotional effect of the book, the strong and scattered range of adolescent feeling? How much does it undermine it? After all, focus can be seen in the emotionally stable and unstable alike. The lack of focus is contrasted with misdirected focus—Miles’ concentration on research rather than his floundering family is the most obvious example—but the children that he is trying so hard not to interact with are fragmented, incapable of coping alone with the trauma of their mother’s death. The lack of focus that results from this capacity is mirrored in the structure and presentation of that book, and it is in this, and in the character of Josie herself, that Hello Strange is most successful. It’s in the tension between misdirected focus and lack of focus, however, and how one materially contributes to the other, that Hello Strange could stand to be a little more critical in its approach.