Evolved: A Review and Interview with N.R. Walker
It's rare, but it can happen: Sometimes you find a book so special it feels like it was written with you in mind. When I first learned about Evolved, all I knew were its key descriptive words: android, sentience, gay romance. I snapped it up.
I first became interested in robots and bioethics through this article, “Futurism Needs More Women.” Nnedi Okorafor is quoted in that article as saying, “That whole idea of creating robots that are in service to us has always bothered me. I’ve always sided with the robots. That whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, that is not my fantasy and I find it highly problematic that it would be anyone’s.”
I also read this highly interesting article that explores the links between how we treat human women and how we treat "fembots," and why so many robots are given female names. Laurie Penny points out that the word “robot” comes from the Czech word for “slave.” (And I just found this completely tone-deaf thesis, “Robots Should Be Slaves.”)
In my downtime at work I read books recommended by billionaire a-holes like Elon Musk, such as Pedro Domingos’s The Master Algorithm and Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. These are some of our most prominent specialists in machine learning, and I continue to be startled by the assumptions written into the books. For example, Pedro Domingos wrote: “Someday they’ll be a robot in every house, doing the dishes, making the beds, even looking after the children while the parents are at work.” The urge to make electronic housewives and to fuel a hyper-capitalistic society in which, freed from menial tasks, “the parents” devote their lives to labor, is terrifying when you realize it’s coming from the men who are literally carving our future. They don’t know that they don’t know to question their inherent assumptions, and they certainly won’t let anyone point it out to them. (Elon Musk follows almost no women on Twitter and also there’s this creepy article about him; Pedro Domingos gets his feathers ruffled whenever someone points out sexism in the field.)
This is the kind of hard-to-grasp inequality that is ripe for fictionalization, because narratives allow us to better understand and feel social issues. So when I saw that Evolved was a romance between a philosophy professor and an android, I jumped to read it. And I wasn’t disappointed.
N.R. Walker paints a mid-twenty-first century world where androids are our chauffeurs and doormen, gynoids are our girlfriends, and human beings spend their time in universities. Lloyd Salter is a misanthropic sufferer of OCD, so he decides to invest in the latest technology, an A-class android named Shaun.
This is definitely a romance, and it hits all of those beats, but Walker didn’t skimp on the details regarding tangled ethical issues. When Shaun comes home with Lloyd, Lloyd has to make important decisions from the very first night about consent and power. Lloyd lives in a world where some people are prejudiced against robots. People who are attracted to robots are labeled “technosexuals” and marginalized. Lloyd keeps Shaun a secret for fear of professional alienation.
“I have exteroceptive sensors on certain parts of my body that record tactile responses which can be likened to human endorphins. I like it very much.”
There were so many things I loved about the world building and the relationship dynamics. Walker wrote Shaun perfectly: He has Google in his brain, so to speak, and is subsequently vastly more intelligent than any human, but he’s still a child in many ways, as he has little direct experience with the world. Walker raises fascinating questions about what knowledge is: Shaun has access to the Internet's wealth of facts and discourse and opinions, but he still chooses to reread Moby Dick over and over again, forming his own opinions on the text and relating to it in his own individual way.
“I’ll take it slow and you can tell me what you do and don’t like.”
[Shaun’s] smile became serene and he gently squeezed my hand. “Well, I like this very much.”
Lloyd is odd and antisocial, precisely the sort of person you would imagine buying a robot, but still so lovingly respectful of Shaun that it touched me. Perhaps because he is unusual himself, he naturally respects Shaun’s differences while acknowledging his sentience; he never invalidates Shaun’s experience of the world. I felt invested in his journey, from him realizing that he loves Shaun to accepting that he might never know if Shaun could love him in the familiar, human way.
My God, it felt so good to say [I love you]. To tell him. I understood in that very moment it didn't matter if he would never say it back, or if the only love he understood was a synthetic, programmed version of the real thing. Love was a gift to give and should be given without expecting anything in return.
Walker is an established romance writer, and she advertised this book accordingly as a “romance with a dash of scifi,” but I would argue that it's more than a dash. She thoughtfully crafted this world and considered the real life ethical implications of a human-robot relationship. Mixed into that was the main conflict, which perfectly echoes the themes of the book: An Amazon-like megacooperation invades consumers’ privacy and wishes to control the products they made even after people buy them. Naturally, the CEO of SATinc has no desire to recognize Shaun’s right to autonomy, and Lloyd’s recognition of Shaun’s autonomy brings him derision and scorn.
This was a morally poignant, touching story, and I really love that it exists. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and the best novel I’ve ever read about robots. I just bought the physical copy, and I can't wait to reread it.
I think I reached out to Walker with an interview request before I finished reading, because I already knew that I had stumbled upon something precious. She graciously responded. Without further ado, the interview!
H: Hello! Let's start here: Your worldbuilding explores many different social issues through a scifi lens. How much research did you do regarding bioethics? What other topics did you research?
W: Bioethics is a really prominent subject right now in robotics. I know the world I created with Shaun seems as far-fetched as The Jetsons to some people, but it’s really not that far away. Robots and androids like Shaun are being made now, and I liked to think that in fifty years, they’d have the designs as advanced as Shaun. And with such beings come laws and regulations, but also the ethical debate of rights and permissions/consent. And rightly so. I did read up on anti-androids sites, using their arguments to lightly touch on some discrimination Lloyd and Shaun would be likely to face. I paralleled this discrimination to homophobia in today’s society to kind of reflect that close-minded bigotry.
I also had to research more about robotics than I like to admit. I’m a huge sci-fi fan, but I needed to delve a bit deeper to get the terminology correct. There’s a fine line between giving the reader just enough info to seem plausible, and info-dumping.
H: What are your favorite android stories in media?
W: I’m a huge Trekkie so I have to give a nod to Data, and to Seven of Nine (even though she’s Borg, not technically an android, she has a lot of traits similar to an android). And Roy from Blade Runner, and David from Prometheus, of course.
H: What was your writing process for Evolved?
W: I’m a pantser (meaning, I don’t plot – at all) and how it all began was rather unusual. I found a pre-made cover on a site I scroll through often, and I loved it. It gave me an idea of an android who became sexually aware. That was the first idea I had. So I bought the cover, and never ended up using it because the story that I wrote was too different from the original picture. I also had the crazy idea that this android would love Moby Dick (I don’t even know why) and for reasons I’ll never understand, I could see the this android saying “Call me Ishmael”.
I researched literary studies of Moby Dick, and found there to be some crazy similarities. So, I wrote the scene where Shaun says that line first. Then I went back and started at chapter one. I will quite often write the closing scenes first, then go back and write from the beginning. Like knowing the destination before you start the journey. That’s the only ‘plan’ or process I had.
H: One of my favorite things about Shaun’s evolution is that it’s never about him becoming “human,” but about humans acknowledging his autonomy. How did you balance writing a character who’s so lovable and emotional but still not a human?
W: Shaun’s evolution was almost childlike to write. He was seeing and learning things for the first time, and there was something innocent about that, and I think that made him endearing. Taking out his human emotional elements at the beginning means he’s also very rational and can easily compartmentalise. Watching, and experiencing with him, as he tries to understand the things he’s feeling makes him more human to the reader. I think people could relate to Shaun because we’ve all been his shoes, we learned about love, life, and death, ourselves at some point.
H: Lloyd is precisely who I would imagine being a purchaser of an A-class android, and he ends up being a supportive eyewitness to Shaun’s progression. How did you develop his character?
W: Lloyd is a lot like me. Introverted, some OCD tendencies (his are worse than mine, to a degree) and his need for isolation, peace, and quiet. So writing him wasn’t a real stretch of my imagination. While Shaun’s development was a bit childlike, Lloyd was never a ‘parent’ or ‘daddy’ to him. In helping Shaun learn about his environment and his emotional development, Lloyd also learned a lot about himself.
H: Do you plan on writing more books in the Evolved universe? And for readers who loved Evolved, what book of yours would you suggest they read next?
W: I can only write the stories characters tell me to write, and unfortunately, their story/world is done. If a reader loved Evolved and likes sci-fi and/or paranormal, I wrote a vampire series that interweaves with history. It’s call Cronin’s Key, and you can find it on Amazon.
H: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions!
W: Thank you so much for having me! And thank you to everyone who has read Evolved. Seeing a sci-fi top the contemporary (LGBT category) charts made my little geeky heart so very happy!!
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