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Set My Heart to Five - Simon Stephenson ****

This is a very clever novel, which owes a lot to the classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. In Flowers for Algernon, the main character is an adult with the mind of a young child, who takes part in experimental treatment that enables him to become a genius before the gradual decline of his faculties back to his original condition sets in. The central character enables us to see the realities of human life from an initially childlike but increasingly sophisticated viewpoint. Set My Heart to Five has a similar approach, where a bot (here meaning an android, rather than a robot) starts to discover feelings and move from a mechanical view of life to a human-like one, exposing as he does so many of the oddities of human existence.

The extra twist to Simon Stephenson's well-crafted work is that it also incorporates a lot from the world and theory of film. It seemed a little forced initially that Stephenson deals with a number of significant events in Jared's (the central character's) life in the format of a film script, but this is multiply relevant both because movies will be central to Jared discovering his feelings and also because Jared both writes a film script and lives through a story that is painstakingly constructed in the format of one of the script-writing guides making it a classic Hero's Journey. The blurb accompanying the book proudly proclaims it has been signed up as a 'major motion picture' - and it would almost be bizarre if it wasn't, because there's nothing filmmakers like more than films about film-making.

The way that Jared gradually develops feelings - even love - is elegantly handled, and the storyline has all the requisite twists and turns, including all the classic movie sequences you could imagine. The road trip section near the end becomes truly page-turning as our hero makes a last-ditch attempt for survival, with the reader always aware of the omens suggested by Jared's discovery of how a film should play out for maximum effect. I also loved the way that one of the big influences on his life was Blade Runner.

There were some irritations. The narration Stephenson gives to Jared grates, as he can barely produce a paragraph without an exclamation mark. And the science here is so far-fetched as to make this closer to fantasy than SF. This is a post apocalyptic world, where the apocalypse was everyone being locked out of the internet, causing, for example, every plane to drop out of the sky. (Why?) Elon Musk has destroyed the Moon by incinerating it, which suggests Stephenson doesn't really know what the Moon is (or what destroying it would do to the Earth). And bots are basically humans who have been genetically modified to have a 'biological computer' instead of a brain (though they also, for some reason, need hard drives) - totally missing the point that the only 'biological computer' of any sophistication likely to be possible is a brain. 

I think it's better to simply go with the flow and ignore the science (or lack of it). It's a strong story, there's delightful interlacing with the history and language of film, and while I think some have over-emphasised the insights to be gained into the human condition here, it certainly gives Stephenson an opportunity to observe the absurdity of humanity's behaviour when seen from an outside (cinematic) viewpoint. One of the most interesting novels of 2020.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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