Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson
CCLaP Publishing, 2013
Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson is a novella about the act and power of storytelling. It follows Robot, a machine who doesn’t fit in with his fellows in a post-apocalyptic world where humans and animals are extinct. He’s so different from the other robots that they fail to understand his difference. He’s sensitive, empathetic, moody, observant. In short, he’s a writer. A mechanical one.
Robot, unlike most of the other mechanical beings in this world, is drawn to humans. He adores their unpredictability, their differences from each other, and their ability to change. Above all, he revels in their stories. His appetite for human stories, both verbal and written, is insatiable. Robot observes, and eventually experiences, the mess of what it means to be human, so different from the clinical tidiness of the robot world. Family, frustration, love, loss, happiness, despair, failure, mourning, death. In the face of all this, his greatest struggle is to discover what it means to be himself. In this way, Robot, even in his bemused confusion at the ways of humans, is the most human character in the novella, a state his robot siblings fail to understand.
It was like he was damaged, like a couple of circuits were crossed, like his random access memory was all used up, like he couldn’t handle the amount of processes comin’ in.
“Well?” his brother would repeat, poking Robot’s square, bronze chest with a clank. Standing in Robot’s way. “What the hell’s got into you?”
Eventually Robot would look up. He’d say what he felt: “Nothing.”
His siblings always found it funny when he said this. They’d buzz.
While at the start of the story the humans have been wiped out, the narrative quickly returns to a time before the great disaster that destroyed all life on the planet, showing Robot’s relationship to a human coworker named Mike from its tentative beginning to its inevitable, apocalyptic end. Robot meets Mike’s wife and children and becomes an awkward uncle to them. After the apocalypse, Robot struggles to make a similar connection to his fellow robots, to foster their own limited humanity.
Through these interactions he learns the power of storytelling to connect with others. Robot is fascinated by the courtship of Mike and his wife Sally, who connected through high-brow Russian literature and pulpy adventure novels alike as Mike discovered “once [he] boiled it down to the individuals, he loved it. And Sally loved that he loved it and loved the reasons he loved it even more than the fact he loved it (if that makes sense).” Mike and Sally relied on these stories to connect to themselves and to each other, eventually forming a family. After the apocalypse, surviving robots also rely on a story of a Messiah, and on their faith in that story’s ending, to continue struggling in the face of decay and defeat.
Robot experiences the human ability to fail as well as to fail and keep trying anyway. Robot, too, experiences the chance to fall in love slowly, sweetly, with another robot. The chance to try and touch her heart. The chance to lose her. And while this story has romance in the tradition of boy robot meets girl robot, the robot romance is only a portion of the larger romance between Robot and the human race. Robot’s love for humans, even beyond the individual humans he comes to know, sets this robot apart from many of the robot stories that have come before. He loves humans. He sees and accepts their failings. He does what is best for them, even when it’s hard. He gives them second chances. He finds them unforgivable, and learns to forgive them anyway.
By turns funny, pithy, oblivious, and tender, the narrator of the novella loves humans too. The narrator, for the most part, stays close to Robot, remembering the humans who have gone, missing “the toilet sound that was the human race” and imagining the now-extinct feeling of grass between bare toes and commenting on the strange, contradictory ways humans feel and behave. And Robot, our expert and guide on this journey, even if he’s not the narrator, is in the unique position to contemplate humanity both during and after its tenure as the dominant species.
On a technical level, the novella can feel shaky. The speaker of the novel, who is too colloquial to be Robot, is concealed in ways that feel strange, rather than satisfying. The non-linear chronology of the story could more strongly enhance the tension as the novella progresses. The first half of the novella in particular relies on foreshadowing to create tension, rather than on the scenes and character interactions of the narrative present. But with these critiques aside, Johnson’s novella is a journey of wonder. It is a story that asks anew: what does it mean to be human?
This novella works best when thought of as an allegory. The strokes are broad, earnest, reaching, all adjectives that describe Robot himself: the outcast, the storyteller, the writer, who through his stories becomes much more. Robot learns that stories carry one forward in the face of tragedy, even for robots. And it is stories that will allow humanity, in whatever form it takes, to survive.