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BOUND TO PLEASE / An artificial mind seeking a role in the natural world

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Wild Robot

By Peter Brown

Little, Brown 279pp

“The Iron Man,” a 1968 children’s novella by Ted Hughes, begins when a giant robot steps off a seaside cliff and smashes to pieces on the rocky shore.

“The Wild Robot,” a new children’s novel by Peter Brown, begins when ocean waves hurl five shipwrecked robots onto a rocky shore, smashing four of them to pieces.

In Hughes’ book, curious seagulls pick up some shiny robot parts and inadvertently help the Iron Man to reassemble himself. In Brown’s book, curious sea otters inadvertently push the one unbroken robot’s “start” button. “Hello, I am ROZZUM unit 7134, but you may call me Roz.”

Naturally, the otters flee. It’s also natural for “The Wild Robot” to begin with this apparent homage to “The Iron Man,” a minor classic that inspired Brad Bird’s brilliant 1999 animated movie “The Iron Giant.”

But once the stage is set, Brown — who also created the book’s charming illustrations — tells a highly original tale. Roz awakens with no memories, but she does have the capacity to learn. She’s a blank slate who begins to form an identity based on her surroundings. In a dramatic moment, she climbs a mountain and looks around to discover she is on an island.

“Roz had no idea how she had come to be on that island. She didn’t know that she’d been built in a factory and then stored in a warehouse before crossing the ocean … As the robot looked out at the island, it never even occurred to her that she might not belong there. As far as Roz knew, she was home.”

The island has no people, but there are plenty of animals. Unfortunately, the animals do not share Roz’s view that the island is her home. Most, like the otters, fear her as a monster. A few, like the bears, resent her as an intruder.

Eventually, Roz learns to communicate with the animals and begins to make friends. In the process, she unwittingly reflects cultural models as diverse as Jane Goodall, Dr. Dolittle and Prometheus.

In “The Iron Man,” the climax comes when our clanking hero saves the world from a space monster through a macho show of strength (with “show” as the key word, since he is secretly terrified). The profound challenge for Roz is motherhood.

When Roz adopts an orphaned gosling, an old goose offers some daunting child-rearing advice. “Oh, it’s nothing, you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don’t pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with others and look after himself. And that’s really all there is to motherhood!”

Roz’s efforts to raise her son, get along with her neighbors and understand her origins raise interesting philosophical questions without providing absolute answers to any of them — which is good. It also has an exciting ending that leaves the reader to ponder one last big question: What happens now?

Where to Read

Sitting high in a tree, with your aural sensors attuned to the whispering leaves

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