Set My Heart To Five

Simon Stephenson

Fourth Estate, £14.99

Review by Stephen Phelan

THE poet and playwright Amiri Baraka offered one of the more thoughtful definitions of art: “whatever makes you proud to be human.” There’s plenty of room in that formulation for science and engineering too. The polio vaccine, the Golden Gate Bridge. What about robots though? And if a robot were to make art, then who would take the credit?

Well, humans of course, sighs Jared, the robot narrator of Simon Stephenson’s new novel, whose aberrant development of something like a soul allows him a rather ironic perspective on the only entities supposed to possess them. Deployed as an efficient, emotionless dentist in the year 2054 – one of the few jobs that “bots” are now trusted to do – Jared feels weird stirrings in his “biological computer” and finds himself weeping at old movies.

His favourites are Love Story, The Shawshank Redemption and especially Blade Runner, whose android “heroes” help him realise his own loneliness. That film is banned in Jared’s America, where every new blockbuster is about unambiguously evil robots. This inspires him to defy his programming, go on the run to Hollywood and write a screenplay that will make humans think more favourably of his kind. The adventure that follows is cinematic in itself, with various scenes written in script format as he falls in love, evades capture and learns hard lessons about the movie business.

Many of these are surely drawn from Stephenson’s own experience as a Scottish talent who has been up-and-coming for a long time now. Even while working as a paediatrician in London he was turning out plays, short stories and TV screenplays, a brilliant memoir about his brother’s death in the 2004 tsunami, a film script that was subject to a studio bidding war in LA. His fiction debut is big news because the deal is already made – Edgar Wright will apparently direct the movie of Set My Heart To Five, and while there’s no word on casting it’s easy to picture his regular star Simon Pegg as the likeable protagonist.

Jared’s sad yet chipper register sets a breezy tone against a semi-satirical dystopian backdrop, never dwelling too long on the Great Crash that downed all the world’s aeroplanes, or the nuclear exchange that destroyed North Korea and New Zealand, or Elon Musk’s accidental incineration of the moon. There’s a does-not-compute strain of comedy to his observations on the habits of our species – as when he defines a strip club as “an establishment where humans pay other humans bitcoin to sexually frustrate them” – and a melancholy heft to his more sombre insights.

“I now understand how the beautiful minutiae of everyday life allowed humans to tolerate their innate paradox of needing to feel special yet secretly knowing that they were all as utterly irrelevant as one another.” In a neat touch he decides that Albert Camus is the greatest of our authors because he “writes like a bot”. What comes across most strongly is a love of popular movies and a deeply felt reflection on what they tell us about ourselves. Maybe Stephenson’s idea was to bypass the frustrations of pitching and selling scripts with a novel so obviously adaptable as to shift him to the top of the pile. In which case, job done.

But even before we enjoy it on screen, we can appreciate his mastery of the formulas and stratagems by which character and plot can mine us for empathy – the benevolent exploitation that all good stories rely upon. There may be something too cute about Jared for some, and this reader did not care for his constant exclamation marks, but only the truly heartless would deny the art at work here, or the attendant swell of pride.