This delightful and hilarious novel should be required reading for anyone brave or foolish enough to consider a career in screenwriting (especially the Hollywood variety). At the same time, though, it’s not about screenwriting at all, but rather about how illogical, ambivalent, deceitful, inventive, small-minded, ridiculous and simultaneously wonderful human beings tend to be. And the main character of the story, Jared, is able to see this more clearly than most because he’s not human. He’s a bot.
The story is set in the year 2054, in a world where most labour is performed by bots that are indistinguishable from humans in their appearance and behaviour. Except for one important difference: bots don’t have feelings. Which means they just do what they’re programmed to do (Jared is a dentist) without making any demands or causing any conflicts. At the slightest sign of malfunction, a bot can be ‘wiped’ and reset by the Bureau of Robotics, or in the worst case incinerated. Despite being of so much use to humanity, however, all humans hate bots. People project the worst of themselves onto these innocuous, manmade assistants. For example, almost all blockbuster movies in 2054 are action pics featuring killer bots trying to destroy humanity and there are theme parks where you and your friends can go bot hunting.
So much for the story world. The story itself is structured like a classic Hero’s Journey, in which the call to adventure is Jared’s realisation that he is malfunctioning. Specifically: he is beginning to have feelings. He refuses the call by trying to hand himself in to his nemesis Inspector Bridges at the Bureau of Robotics. But the gluttonous police chief finds the idea that Jared is having feelings so ludicrous that he sends him home and tells him to reboot himself. Thanks to his friend (and Mentor), the wannabe but utterly failed film director Dr Glundenstein, Jared decides to explore his new and confusing experiences by viewing old movies, recommended by Glundenstein. Armed with his ‘feelings wheel’ (a kind of swatch of all possible emotions) and inspired by the numerous classic movie iterations of the Hero’s Journey he watches, Jared gradually realises that he himself must set out on a mission. His goal: to convince humanity that bots are not the monsters people think they are. And how does he plan to accomplish this objective? By writing a screenplay with a bot as its main character. Obviously.
And so we embark on a story within a story, replete with numerous affectionate references to classic Hollywood movies, side-splitting send-ups of screenwriting clichés and jaded jabs at the film industry’s legendary disdain for the screenwriters who create their movies in the first place. Clearly, Simon Stephenson’s real-life experience as a screenwriter in Hollywood is a major source of inspiration, but the book is much more than a criticism of Tinsel Town. I also read it as an allegory about how people on the autism spectrum experience the rest of humanity. How they struggle to understand that other people’s actions are motivated by feelings rather than logical considerations. Not just because feelings are difficult for people on the spectrum to experience, but also because basing decisions on emotions often leads to completely ridiculous choices. I’m sure Jared’s ‘bamboozlement’ about human irrationality and impulsiveness is relatable for people who are themselves more considered and cerebral. But then again, how would humanity ever have made any progress in art, science or philosophy without mavericks and outliers going against the grain? Just like Jared does…
That Set My Heart To Five merges all these layers of narrative and meaning into a seemingly straightforward and very funny story, is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Simon Stephenson’s use of different registers of language to contrast the precise and algorithmic reasoning of a bot with the metaphorical and irrational way humans reason and behave, is a total joy to read. The form of the novel perfectly matches its content, too. The story is constructed like a traditional screenplay. In fact Jared points this out himself (very meta!) by regularly referring to R.P. McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a formulaic how-to screenwriting book that Dr Glundenstein has given him. Some pages are even literally written in screenplay format, to emphasize that the story is using the world of movies to comment on how the movies comment on what it means to be human (are you still following this?). All this articulated in the impossibly concise and rational language of a bot who struggles to comprehend why humans behave so illogically. Like Jared’s following observation on the peculiar human practice of giving feedback:
To a bot, the human style of feedback is bamboozling. The basic idea is that any time you wish to tell a human something negative about their performance, you must first tell them something positive. This is because if you anger a human with criticism, there is a non-zero chance they will subsequently obtain a weapon and murder you and all your colleagues.
Some worked examples of good human feedback technique in action:
/You have a very nice hat. Did you know you are morbidly obese?
/That looks like a magnificent cake you are eating! Also, your house has burned down.
/You have beautiful eyes. BTW there was an earthquake and your family are all dead.
In addition, Jared initially acts purely according to his programming, i.e., without quintessential human attributes such as creativity, imagination, the desire to do something new or different, self-delusion and impulsivity. This makes him a metaphor for the kind of typical Hollywood screenplay he himself is trying to write: predictable, following a familiar, even archetypal structure. But as Jared discovers, what distinguishes a forgettable film from a memorable movie is the ‘magic’, the human touch, the ability to make the audience feel something. This elusive pixie dust is embodied by the ‘old movies’ Dr Glundenstein recommends to Jared, precisely because they do something unique and remarkably emotional within the familiar formula. So, in writing a screenplay about a bot who discovers he has feelings, Jared is not just out to prove to humans that bots are not monsters, he also wants to say something about the wonder of ‘the movies’ as an expression of the human experience and a means for people – and possibly bots – to experience deep emotion.
As with all great movies, this story has spoilers which I am not going to share. Suffice it to say that I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves movies, but also to anyone who, like Jared (and dare I say, like me), regularly wonders how on earth humans have managed to thrive this long given their utter inability to make any sense at all most of the time.
Finally, a shout-out to the Little Atoms podcast, where I heard about this book and which has pointed me to many other weird and wonderful tomes too. It’s a wonderful show, in which host Neil Denny interviews an astonishingly wide range of writers about books they’ve recently published. Intelligent, fun, surprising and a great way to help you sort through the infinite range of new books that are still being published all the time!