Adrian Tchaikovsky, SERVICE MODEL

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the most accomplished science fiction writers of the past two decades. He is also remarkably prolific, having published well over thirty hefty novels, together with many shorter works, in the years since 2008. Tchaikovsky also has a great range. He seems reluctant to repeat himself, and has instead explored a wide variety of subgenres in science fiction and fantasy: everything from novels of uplifted animal intelligence (the Children trilogy), to the dying-Earth subgenre (Cage of Souls), to metaphysical space opera (the Final Architecture trilogy), to alternative visions of evolution (The Doors of Eden), to science fantasy with a dollop of horror (Walking to Aldebaran).

Tchaikovsky’s latest novel, Service Model, might be characterized as robot cyberfiction. It recounts the story of a robot’s picaresque adventures in a ruined, posthuman world. “Charles”, as the robot is initially called, initially serves as a valet to a rich man, and is programmed to anticipate his every wish, and to pamper him to a degree far exceeding what even the richest actual human beings today are able to get their servants to do. Charles is content in his position, even though his idle, wealthy employer is clearly a degenerate scumbag (I am using this phrase, which does not appear in the actual text of the novel, in the precise sense in which it is defined by the Urban DIctionary: “a person whose behaviour and attitude holds back the progress of the human race while eroding social solidarity”).

Only one day, without realizing it, Charles slashes his master’s throat while in process of shaving him. With no master left to serve, Clarles has to leave. In addition, since the name “Charles” was only imposed as a feature of his initial position, once that position is gone, so is the name. For the rest of the novel, and following a suggestion from somebody else, the robot calls himself Uncharles instead. (I am only using he/him pronouns here because of the initial name “Charles”; the robot shows no particularly gendered characteristics one way or the other).

Most of the book narrates Uncharles’ search for another source of employment; and secondarily in order to find out why he murdered his employer, since he cannot discover any reasons to have done so. He sees himself as a mechanism, having tasks to perform, but without anything of the order of needs, desires, and emotions, such as human beings might feel. Uncharles seeks a new job, not for monetary reasons — he has no physical needs as long as he can be recharged from sunlight — but because he still feels a strong impulse to do the sort of work for which he was initially programmed: to be the enthusiastic helper of a living human being. The problem is that the world has been largely destroyed. Pretty much everything has been reduced to debris. The wasteland is heavily populated with robots set adrift, much as Uncharles himself is. Human beings have almost gone extinct; for the most part, the only surviving ones are relegated to hellish situations of continual pain and punishment.

For most of the volume, Uncharles passes through a series of situations that are unattractive for him, and evidently satirical from the point of view of the author and of us as readers. Thinking the murder of his employer results from some sort of mechanical defect, Uncharles goes to a robot repair center that is entirely dysfunctional (which is evidently for the best since its only form of “repair” for broken robots is to terminate them and scavenge their physical remains for spare parts). Uncharles then goes to a sort of farm or factory where the few surviving human beings are compelled endlessly to re-enact their supposed pre-robotic folkways (consisting in straightened living situations, hellish commutes, and meaningless and unending factory labor, though they do not actually produce anything). Then there is a library where all human knowledge is transcribed into 1s and 0s and then erased, with the original sources (books, movies, etc.) also being physically destroyed. After that, there’s an enormous junkyard where robot armies continually battle one another for no discernible reason. And so on. These scenarios are referenced to famous modernist authors, such as Kafka (the bureaucracy of the repair facilities), Orwell (the ceaseless surveillance of the people forced to reenact the most oppressive circumstances of their past lives), and Borges (the library) — though this is a joke only for the readers, as it is something the robots themselves remain unaware of.

Uncharles is accompanied on his voyages by another figure known as The Wonk (who turns out to be a human woman in robot disguise — I don’t feel like I am giving away a spoiler here, because the reader realizes that this in the case, long before Uncharles is officially informed of it). She plays Sancho Panza to Uncharles’ Don Quixote, with her comments continually undermining his delusions about his tasks and about the structure of society. She also keeps noting to Uncharles that, in contrast to his original programming, he has developed something like free will. This is an observation that he continually denies, but that readers in the long run judge to be true.

The question of human freedom or flexibility versus robot programming and external determination is also continually raised in the novel’s own language. A close third-person narration is continually describing Uncharles’ reactions to various things by comparing them to human emotional responses, while at the same time disavowing these comparisons by saying things like: Uncharles was acting very much like a person getting angry, though of course as a robot he didn’t feel anger or any other emotions. The novel gets a considerable degree of this power from this sly use of rhetoric, as well as from the evidently satirical and exaggerated characterizations of all the predicaments within which Uncharles finds himself.

In short, Service Model is a brilliant novel, equal in power to many of Tchaikovsky’s other works, but unique among those works in its particular strategies and angles of approach. Its ultimate impact is to blur the distinction between internally-generated and externally-imposed actions and responses, as between what philosophers call dispositions and what common sense refers to as feelings. And therefore it also erodes (even as it overtly affirms) differences between natural and artificial intelligence. This is both the source of the considerable pleasure I took in reading the novel, and the sign of its being a deep philosophical thought-experiment and argument in its own right.