36 pages, The Friday Project
Review by Pat Black
Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys trilogy is probably better known by its filmed incarnation, Steven Spielberg’s AI. The three tales, collected in one volume for Kindle, tell the story of David, a very unusual boy stuck at home with his mother, Monica, and his best friend and favourite toy, the animatronic Teddy.
“Supertoys Last All Summer Long” splits its narrative in two. In the first strand, David and Teddy discuss why mummy seems so distant. David just wants a hug and some attention from Monica, but she is distracted, even dismissive. There’s an alien chill to her very features. David picks up on this restraint and lack of warmth, but he’s too young to understand the reasons behind it.
The mother spends her time in what we now know as a simulator, bent into fake wind and snow in the comfort of her own home. Not much Monica experiences is real - not even the view outside her window, nor the tone of light that makes it through the drapes. Can she muster some real love for her affection-starved boy?
Meanwhile, Monica’s husband, Henry, is involved in high-powered boardroom manoeuvrings, trying to sell his latest super-product to the rich elite – the next generation of synthetic human being. Negotiations are tough, and temptation is placed in Henry’s way, but there’s some very good news on the way for himself and his wife.
In “Supertoys When Winter Comes”, David’s curiosity grows. He tries to find out more about his life in the house and how it came about, and also conducts experiments into what makes Teddy tick. There are tragic consequences in store; all the while, Henry, the absentee father, loses his grip on his business empire.
“Supertoys in Other Seasons”, the third story, brings the arc to a conclusion, and is probably the best in the trilogy. Viewers of AI will be familiar with the town David finds himself wandering, a place where outmoded technology goes to die – or to exist in desuetude. David wants to find the love of his parents, and his abandonment is difficult to stomach. Finally he is reconciled with Henry, who has traded in his sleazy business dealings for more honest work. The happy ending strikes a defiant note. Who could deny David his humanity?
Despite this trilogy’s limited length, it yields a rich thematic crop. David and Teddy were first written in the 1960s, but the alienating quality of new technology and its ability to tear us away from flesh and blood reality surely needs no illustration these days. In the automatons’ limbo, Throwaway, I was put in mind of that discomfiting discovery which confronts us any time we head into the loft, or clear out cupboards; this slow accrual of obsolete tech, nestled among wires that creep and tangle across floorspace like ivy. Some of it is no use to anyone, but old computers, ingrained as they are with our past activities, music, photos and memories, are difficult things to simply put in the trash.
When synthetic humans finally appear, they’ll be put to many uses, a great deal of which will no doubt be immoral. But ultimately, we might appreciate mankind’s fascination with making a machine which perfectly mimics a human being for what it is – the apotheosis of all art. Who’s to say they won’t need love in return, much like our own biological creations?
There’s a distinctively anti-capitalist tone to the three stories which was absent from the movie adaptation. Henry’s soul is slowly being consumed by his career. The trappings of sleaze are all around even as he peddles artifice; fit young women on tap, a glut of food and drink, and ersatz exoticism, thousands of miles away from his family. But the humans here make a poor contrast with the synthetics in their greedy, grasping nature and lack of utility. This is a society where obesity is a great problem, not hunger – and the rich can maintain their figures by introducing genetically-modified tapeworms into their digestive systems. Looking at the adverts for Lovecraftian bodybuilding supplements and weightloss aids mushrooming across any given webpage, you can easily see a product of this kind being put on the market and selling well.
Chillier still is the humans’ seeming disregard of the degradation of the natural world, while they distract themselves with artifice. The plastic-clogged beaches lurking behind the Caribbean hologram that illustrates Henry’s boardroom meeting won’t seem that far-fetched to anyone. Meanwhile, Monica fools herself into thinking that she lives in a paradisal pleasuredome. In reality, she’s alone, and once the 3D trickery fades, it turns out she’s living in an ugly functional pile of concrete hung with wires and pipes. Death seems like an entirely rational consequence of this house of cards collapsing.
The trilogy’s initial thrust - population control - doesn’t seem much like science fiction any more. Only the other month I read Arthur C Clarke’s The Deep Range, and its crisis projection of a world population of some five billion by around 2100 is already a laughable understatement. But even more striking is the very human tragedy lurking at the centre of Supertoys – the breakdown of a family, and the desperate efforts of a parent to be reunited with a son, no matter what form he may take.
One thing AI got absolutely spot-on: there, as in its source material, you’re terrified for the welfare of Teddy. “They can’t take Teddy away, can they?” There’s something in these stories that gets to the heart of childhood anxieties, creepy and resonant as distant cries heard in a playground. Technological issues are fascinating, but not nearly so engaging as the questions posed by the human heart. The Supertoys trilogy is up there with Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” as among the finest sci-fi short stories ever written.
Read the author interview here.
Read the excerpt here.