The Obsoletes by Simeon Mills
Wednesday, October 9, 2019 at 7:47AM
TChris in General Fiction, Science Fiction, Simeon Mills

Published by Skybound Books/Atria Books on May 14, 2019

Darryl and Kanga Livery are robot kids. Kanga sort of believes he is a real kid, having been raised that way by his robot parents. Their robot father was programmed to answer their questions with “Ask your mother” and their robot mother seemed to be depressed. The parents have disappeared, victims of obsolescence. Darryl is happy to see them gone but Kanga, who thought of them as real, misses them.

Parental absence leaves Darryl in the self-appointed role of mother, spending most of his time coaching Kanga not to do anything that would cause others to learn that he’s a robot. Anonymity is the key to robot survival. There are places in America where robots are accepted, other places where they are tolerated. In the Midwest, they are feared or viewed with anger because they take jobs away from humans. Are robots the story’s version of immigrants? You bet.

Darryl fears that Kanga’s skill at basketball will be the end of their anonymity. Darryl stops fretting about the loss of anonymity when he realizes that attending Kanga’s practices brings him into contact with Brooke Noon. Desire is apparently part of Darryl’s programming.

Being a sullen teen, on the other hand, is part of Kanga’s programming. Some of the story’s humor comes from Darryl’s efforts to keep his rebellious brother in check. And some of the humor derives from what initially seems to a competition between Darryl and Kanga for Brooke’s affection. Should Darryl’s loyalty be to his brother or to his robotic heart’s desire?

The story’s point lies in the realization that a young robot’s fears are pretty much the same as young human’s fears (apart from leaking oil): fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of growing up to be like your parents. And for nerdy boys, fear of girls. Coming to terms with those fears, developing an identity, deciding what’s important to you, is the same coming-of-age experience for every kid, even if the kid is a robot.

The Obsoletes pokes fun at American “values” (consisting chiefly of being American and winning international basketball competitions), parenting (“Few thrills in parenting compare with presenting a hypothetical consequence that immediately changes a kid’s behavior”), teachers, student athletes, prejudice, and hero worship. The basketball coach, who isn’t much of a coach and is an even worse teacher, is hilarious. His assistant, whose emotional development ended when he was a freshman basketball player, is almost as funny.

Maybe the story teaches obvious lessons, but it does so with an offbeat and entertaining plot. The story might not cut it as a coming-of-age story involving two human kids, but it adds a fresh take on a thoroughly explored theme by substituting robots. There are times (particularly when Kanga is on the basketball court) when the story goes too far over the top, and times (particularly when Darryl and Kanga interact with their creator) when the story loses its focus, but for the most part, The Obsoletes offers a view of growing up that emphasizes the familiar by contrasting it with the unconventional.

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