Friday Reads: Rabbit & Robot, by Andrew Smith

I’m a huge fan of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, so I’ve been anxiously anticipating his latest release, Rabbit & Robot. It arrived in my mailbox on Tuesday, September 25 (its release date), and I finished it this past weekend. Like Grasshopper Jungle, Rabbit & Robot is apocalyptic and darkly humorous; its plot unfolds in a similarly absurd fashion, and the social commentary is unmistakable.

Rabbit & Robot is set in the future, at a time when regular people work as either bonks (soldiers) or coders. v.4 cogs, humanlike robots programmed by the coders, perform all other tasks that people “no longer wanted to waste their time doing” (57), including performing surgery, building roads, and caring for children.

As foreshadowed by one of the book’s epigraphs (“Education makes machines which act like men and produces men who act like machines” – Erich Fromm), schools are the primary mechanism for turning regular people’s children into bonks or coders. To facilitate this process, students receive carefully calibrated doses of Woz, a drug designed to help them learn. The ubiquitous and addictive Rabbit & Robot television program, “which was all about getting kids to embrace their inner bonks and coders” (33), reinforces this learning.

The book’s narrator, sixteen-year-old Cager Messer, and his best friend, Billy Hinman, are not regular kids: Cager’s father, the fifth richest man in America, owns a line of lunar cruise ships and is the creator of the Rabbit & Robot television show; and Billy’s father, the richest man in the world, owns the company that manufactures the world’s supply of cogs. Cager and Billy do not attend school and have never watched Rabbit & Robot. Billy has never taken Woz, but Cager, in his own words, is “pretty much an out-of-control addict” (24). The addiction is so bad, in fact, that Billy and Cager’s caretaker, Rowan, transport him to his father’s newest cruise ship, the Tennessee – “as big as a Midwestern city, staffed by hundreds of v.4 cogs” (28) – to detox.

This act of intervention is the story’s precipitating event; me recounting the many zany and surreal events that follow won’t adequately convey what the book is actually about though. For that, we must turn to a handful of passages in which Cager directly addresses the reader. This first occurs on page one, before it’s even clear who is speaking. The as-yet-unnamed narrator asks a question, and offers an explanation:

Are you a person, or are you some kind of cog?
Either way, I feel a compelling obligation to tell you what it meant to be a human, at least as far as I can describe it accurately. (1)

The difference between people and cogs is a thread that runs throughout the story. From the start, Cager struggles against the empathy he feels for v.4 cogs, which not only look and act like human beings, but are also beginning to exhibit human emotions. He tries to short-circuit this impulse by telling himself cogs are no different from egg beaters or coffee grinders, but it doesn’t work. As the story progresses, Cager becomes increasingly unwilling to treat cogs as inanimate objects. And after a particularly traumatic, paradigm-shifting revelation, Cager begins wrestling with concepts like what it means to call someone he’s close to a thing, and how doing so makes this someone “something other than us” (403).

In a late chapter, titled “Are You One of Us?” Cager again addresses his reader:

And maybe that’s the whole point, after all – that every one of us who ever existed spent all those limited days over the thousands of centuries we were here just trying to figure out what it meant to be us. The mousetrap trigger is this precise point: Pour the word “us” into the coding of a human, and we immediately discount as inferior or useless all the not-us things in the universe. (404-405)

To summarize, then, on the surface this is a book in which a lot of weird and wacky stuff happens; in the end, though, it winds up being about what it means to be human, and the ludicrousness of some of the fine distinctions we make between ourselves (us) and others (not-us).

Smith, Andrew. Rabbit & Robot. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

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