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BOOK REVIEW: Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson

REVIEW SUMMARY: Compelling and insightful post-apocalyptic tale told from a unique perspective. Clever storytelling, tight prose, and a solid noir tone make for an enjoyable read.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Robot is sad because everyone is dead, including Mike and Sally and their kids, Mike, Jr. and his kid sister, Marie. Robot tells stories about Mike and his family, how they loved him and how he loved them. Someday, if he’s lucky, Robot might have a family again.

PROS: Sad Robot Stories is a brilliant retelling of the classic post-apocalyptic tale. A lone hero and a small band of survivors must traverse the wastes in search of salvation. They just happen to be robots. Mason Johnson explores his mechanical creations’ existential doubt and uncertainty and through their trials and ordeals, the reader is treated to clever examinations of human nature, belief, faith, will, and love. The book begins with an extended flashback to set the stage, and not one drop of ink goes to waste. Johnson builds his world for us through scenes showing Robot’s interactions with his workmates, employers, and surrogate family (Mike, Sally, and children). The prose is focused and spare of ornament that might otherwise distract from the pervading sense of gloom. But this isn’t a gloom that drags the reader down with it. Johnson has succeeded in writing a truly heart-breaking story, and has done so in such a way that you can’t help but crack a grin with every page you turn.
CONS: The one quibbling point I have with Sad Robot Stories is the occasional use of profanity. I’m not averse to it by any measure. Neither does it show up in any great amount. Yet, when four-letter words do appear, they seem to interrupt the narrator’s voice. There’s such a strong sense of sadness throughout the book. The few times that emotionally charged language does show up felt out of place.
BOTTOM LINE: Sad Robot Stories is a must read for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction. I’d also suggest it for anyone with an eye for clever storytelling and non-canonical characterization. The story excels in style, invention, and pacing. Johnson deserves praise for sheer originality and also for how far he goes in examining humanity through the eyes of our would-be successors.

Sad Robot Stories begins like a great book should: with a simple statement that demands you keep reading.

The general consensus was that the apocalypse had made everything considerably quieter.

Robot disagreed.

I was instantly hooked and grew more thrilled as the story introduced Robot through an anonymous narrator who, while clearly not Robot himself, was intimately familiar with his attitudes and sensibilities. I laughed out loud at the many instances of Robot’s observations of humanity, like this gem that shows up on the first page:

Robot missed the toilet sound that was the human race.

Johnson scatters such witticisms throughout the story, granting an insider’s view of Robot’s mind while simultaneously reminding the reader just how silly the human race might appear to non-human intelligences. These moments were among my favorite in the book because (laughter aside) I was continually confronted with the author’s cleverness. It’s one thing to write a darn good book. Quite another to prove it with every new scene or snippet of dialogue.

The story gets moving with scenes describing Robot’s life as a factory employee. He’s disenchanted with the tasks he’s required to perform (counting washers on a conveyor belt). Robot has a creative’s heart, forever looking for better or perhaps just more enjoyable ways of working. He’s promoted, demoted, chastised by his employer, and given the bent eye by the humans who work around him. Like everyone who just knows there’s something amiss in the world but can’t put a finger on it, Robot ends up hanging out in the local bar after hours.

Robot watches his human coworkers shoot pool, stare into their beer, chit-chat and mumble, all the while wondering why his sense of unease feels so much like what he sees reflected in the behavior of the men around him. Then there’s Mike, a guy from the factory who stands up for Robot when some other human factory workers ride him a little too much at the bar one night. Robot and Mike become friends, and the mysterious narrator introduces us to more of Robot’s history and, by extension, that of the world he and Mike inhabit.

Mike’s wife, Sally, is a software engineer. Sally designs AI personalities and dreams of one day creating an intelligence capable of creating and innovating on its own.

She wanted to make something, a computer, a robot, anything, that could think and feel like a human. She was convinced that the only way to do this was with art.

So Sally builds Gladys, and begins feeding the AI samples of art from the human world. This is where the story really launched for me, with Robot’s narrator pointing to humanity’s consistently failed and yet perpetual attempts at fabricating anything as mind-bogglingly impressive as human life. We’re forever fascinated by ourselves, what we can do, what we can’t yet do but know we want to.

For many of us, this fascination bears a melancholy taint as we can’t help but stare at what we are prevented from doing, whether by others or by our own limitations, self-imposed or with us since birth. But Johnson doesn’t restrict himself to examining humanity’s love affair with taboo. Instead, he asks us to consider our xenophobia and, again, he is incredibly clever in doing so.

When Robot submerges himself in a lake, as close to opening a vein as he can get, the weight of existential dread is palpable, and especially so because of Robot’s contemplations about what he has done.

He was waiting for the time to come when his memory started to slip away slowly and unnoticed, a daughter sneaking out her bedroom window in the middle of the night. Eventually, it would start to disappear more rapidly, and then POP he’d try to recall something, a moment or fact, and his mind would just suddenly end, just go out like a lightbulb.

Robot’s eventual emergence from the water sees him joined with a group of surviving robots from the other side of the lake. The narrator reminds us that Robot has never known anything other than the city where he was made, and the same turns out to be true for the machines he meets on the opposite lakeshore. These robots, however, have struggled longer and harder to survive, and many show signs of repair or damage as a result. Mismatched arms and legs and torsos cast the group as orphaned children, with Robot, in his sturdy and uniform casing, as a sort of paternal-savior figure.

Here, the story takes an eye-opening turn when Robot and his new companions explore faith and belief. How do we, as humans, decide who to believe and in whom to place our trust? How do we confirm our beliefs? Is it by matching them with those held by others or by observing the differences between us?

Even more compelling for me is the introduction of Denton, a robot character who, through repairs, has experienced gender reassignment. Denton’s transformation from “boy” robot to “girl” robot is a conscious one, granting Robot his final and most tragic opportunity to explore what it means to be human.

Mason Johnson’s story is rife with moments of sadness, but not one of them feels forced or contrived to compel sympathy. It is as authentic an examination of the human condition as any literary classic. The characters in Sad Robot Stories are a bit like your old classmates or college chums. You’ve met them all before and spent long hours with them. You had these heated conversations, sometimes, possibly, across a table littered with empty bottles and pizza boxes, the effluvia of a young life not yet established because, the efforts of parents and mentors aside, that life is still being formed. Tragedy and comedy share equal billing in such settings, and sometimes the former may be felt more strongly than the latter. And yet we have no choice but to keep going, to keep reading our story and sharing it with everyone we meet.

2 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson

  1. I picked up a copy of this after hearing you mention it on the podcast and am really looking forward to it even more now that I’ve seen your review.

    • Great to hear, and I hope you enjoy it. I think the story bears re-reading and will probably open it again myself soon enough.

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