Loving your chosen family — of robots
Cerulean Sea author brings new sci-fi book to town
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TJ Klune might be the first author whose book was born in a vacuum.
The idea for the American author’s new science-fiction/fantasy novel, In the Lives of Puppets, came to him after he bought himself a Roomba.
“Humans are humans, and so I did what a lot of humans do and anthropomorphized it, put googly eyes on it,” Klune, 40, explains by phone from his home in Virginia. “When I first got it, it was going around and mapping the house when it got stuck in a corner. It made the saddest beeping sound.
“Right when it made that sound, I had this huge explosion in my head — the idea of this book.”
Klune is a prolific writer with more than 30 titles written for young adults, teen and adults to his name, with an emphasis on queer representation that runs through his work.
His breakthrough to a larger audience came with his 2020 fantasy novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea, a New York Times bestseller. Klune has signed a multi-book deal with Macmillan Tor, which includes some of his back catalogue, originally published with a now-defunct independent press.
In the Lives of Puppets, which Klune will launch in Winnipeg at McNally Robinson’s Grant Park location tonight, is the story of Victor Lawson, a young man who lives in the forest with a group of androids — his “father” Gio, a cynical medical droid named Nurse Ratched, and Rambo, the nervous vacuum robot based on Klune’s Roomba.
While foraging for spare parts in a scrap yard one day, Victor discovers a discarded, but still slightly functioning, life-like android who comes to be named Hap.
One day the group’s quiet home is invaded by the Authority, the repressive group of robots now running things. They apprehend Gio as the others hide, the remaining group sets out to find him and bring him home from the City of Electric Dreams (a.k.a. Las Vegas).
“This book is about hope. It is about bravery. It is about families that we choose to be in, regardless of blood relations or in this case, regardless if they’re human or not,” Klune says.
The book is a reworking of the Pinocchio story, set in a post-human world (save for Victor). It also brings in hat-tips to many of Klune’s other favourite works.
“It has The Wizard of Oz in it, but it also has Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Brave Little Toaster, an animated movie about sentient appliances that was very dark,” he explains. “But it also has elements of A.I. by Steven Spielberg, of Kubrick, of Asimov, of I, Robot… this book is a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy genre. It has been my love since I was a kid.”
For Klune, world-building is a key element of his work.
“I’m such a sensory writer — In the Lives of Puppets opens in the middle of a forest. I want people to be able to hear the leaves crunching beneath their feet, smell the pine needles, hear the birds and the squirrels and everything around,” he says. “If you can get the reader to feel that with all of their senses, it transports them to the location — it’s like they’re walking alongside the characters.”
That world-building lends a cinematic nature to the book that makes it ripe for screen adaptation, something Klune would relish.
“It has elements of Wall-E and the The Wizard of Oz and all that — I think it would be gorgeous,” he says. “But here’s the twist — if it was going to be made into a movie, I would do my damnedest to try to make it a musical, à la Moulin Rouge, where they take existing songs and remix them and retrofit them into the movie itself.” (When asked about potential actors for such a film, Klune only has one caveat. “I would be fine with any actor playing any character in any of my books, so long as they’re not James Corden,” he says, laughing.)
And while characters such as Rambo came to Klune almost fully formed, others underwent changes in the writing and editing process.
Victor, for example, was initially slated to be a character with autism, but after one of three sensitivity readers on the book objected to the portrayal the way Klune had written it, he scrapped the idea.
“I’m not a person with autism; I can’t speak for the autistic community,” Klune says. “This person that did this sensitivity read was doing their job, and they gave their honest and frank opinion. So I can’t be mad at them for doing their job… I can just be frustrated at the situation.”
A key component of all of Klune’s writing is queer representation, something historically lacking in the genres in which he writes, but which has recently been in the spotlight as some U.S. states (and organizations elsewhere, including in Canada) discuss banning books containing certain themes from schools or libraries.
“My young-adult series, the books are very sex positive, in that the teenagers in the book discuss consent and boundaries and safe-sex practices and all of that. Those books have been challenged a couple of times, but not outright — at least not that I’m aware of.”
Should they challenge his books, Klune is game for a fight.
“If you want to go to war with me — meaning if you want to try to take on my books and get them removed — you have made a very poor decision. Because I can be very loud and very annoying, and I will come after you,” he says.
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Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.