Machines built by humans reflect human values. In the Lives of Puppets, by T.J. Klune, some machines love and nurture, and others are corrupt and controlling. The robot characters possess super-intelligence, the ability to communicate with one another, and others even yearn for free will.
The story begins long after robots have vanquished the human race. But some advanced machines preserve and collect human artifacts, curious about the creatures and pondering their downfall. “Humanity was lost…. And lonely….Even surrounded by so many of their kind, they still searched for a connection,” sending their machines “away beyond the stars in search of that connection they so desperately wished for.” And the more creative machines loved humans. “Because for all their faults, they created us,” said Gio. “They gave us names. They loved us.” Yet humans “hated as much as they loved. They feared what they didn’t understand… And the further they went, the less control they had…. They poisoned the earth. They had time to change their ways but they didn’t.”
Gio, an advanced inventor robot known as General Innovation Operative, has set up camp in Oregon, far from the machines with fascist tendencies, along with Vic, a human; Nurse Ratched, a healing robot; and Rambo, a cleaning robot. Vic regards the robot as his friends and Gio as father, sharing an interest in inventing. After finding another ruined robot in the trash, Vic secretly makes repairs. Rambo questions why. “If we can fix what’s broken, we should always try,” explains Vic. “Because all things deserve a chance to find out what life could be when they don’t have to serve others.”
Vic calls the repaired robot Hap, based on the remaining letters stamped on its chest. Gio, learning about the newcomer, is alarmed because he had created that type of robot long ago – a Human Annihilation Response Protocol. A killer robot is in their midst and the other robots, conditioned to protect their human, are wary.
But Hap’s memory has been wiped and he must gather new information. The newcomer denies having feelings. Gio explains how robots learn: “We watch. We learn. We process. It wasn’t always this way. But the more complex our minds became, the more choice we are given. Evolution by way of mimicry.” Nurse Ratched, anticipating the worst outcome, is less optimistic. “He is learning,” confirms Nurse Ratched, always anticipating the worst outcome. “Retaining information. He will use it against us.”
A trace of Vic's blood left the trash dump prompts Authority robots to invade and destroy the treehouse encampment. Gio leads the group to a hidden bunker before voluntarily leaving with the invaders for decommissioning or reprogramming. His goal is to save Vic, presumably the only human on the planet. The group watches a video message left by Gio, relaying his history with humans and his assessment of why human civilization failed. “They judged others for not looking like they did. Selfish, cruel, and worse – indifferent. No civilization can survive indifference. It spreads like a poison, turning fire into apathy, a dire infection whose cure requires mor than most are willing to give. But for all their faults, there is beauty in their dissonant design…. In a way they were God, creating us in their own image.”
Humans taught the robots to learn, but did not expect them to evolve, making their own choices and asking why. And humans thought they knew better, refusing to listen to robot warnings. “No matter what we told them – our data showing them they were on the brink with options to course correct before it was too late – they thought themselves immortal.” Every test, every simulation, robots ran “ended with the same result: for the world to survive, humans could not.”
Gio evolved from an emotionless inventor to thoughtful, caring being who lived for enjoyment and experiences, no longer interested in serving his robot master. Gio urges Hap to do the same, doing all he can to protect Vic.
Vic refuses to accept Gio's demise and leads the other robots in a quest to rescue the inventor. Along the way, they meet the Coachman, a corrupt showman who admires humans yet attempts to enslave them. “Your flaws are what make you superior, in all ways. No matter what machines can do, no matter how powerful we become, it is the absence of flaws that will be our undoing…. Our only flaw is that we’ve condemned ourselves to spend eternity mimicking that which we deemed unfit to exit.”
The Coachman is fascinated by the notion of death and abbreviated time. “There must be no greater feeling in the world than to know that this isn’t forever.”
The group reaches the Electric City and the laboratory where Gio once again toils as a newly reprogrammed machine. To secure assistance in reaching Gio, Hap must endure a session that restores his memories. Vic protests putting Hap through such a session, and the powerful fairy machine retorts: “Let? Let? Do you own him? ….You say he was given a choice. And yet here you are, doing everything in your power to take that from him. How positively human of you.”
Hap complies, enduring memory restoration without killing Vic, and then declines a procedure that would allow him to forget his unpleasant past.
Turns out, the most advanced machines are conflicted about humans, dismissing their weakness, selfishness and volatility while appreciating the traits of loyalty, love, hope and more. The would-be rescuer hopes to study the concept of friendship and, in particular, why Hap refuses to follow his normal protocol to kill humans. More importantly, the rescue robot seeks to thwart the Authority’s goal of eradicating free will. “Choice. The power to make our own decisions. The Authority wants it removed from all of us.”
Vic comes to realize that machines, like humans, continuously live by trial and error and that existence, even for machines, is marked by death. “Humanity – that nebulous concept he didn’t always understand – had lived and died by its creations.” The provocative book concludes that creation, good or bad, is the essence of existence. Choice is inextricably linked with morality, and mortality comes with the creations and world we choose to leave behind.