Sad Robot Stories, written by Mason Johnson and published by The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), is a science-fiction novella told from the third-person point-of-view of Robot, an urban manufacturing robot from the not-too-distant future. Robot isn’t like other robots—sometimes, he seems a little too in touch with humanity. All for the worse when the apocalypse happens and everything dies. Everything but robots, that is. When Robot has nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, he recaptures his humanity through story, in recalling the same stories his human best friend, Mike, told him. However, not all stories have happy endings.
Mason and I have known each other for ages, probably. Back in our college days, it felt as if everyone weighed their hopes on either one of two writers in in our class. Mason and myself. Of those two writers, only one of us has successfully published something at least novella length. Yay, congratulations, Mason. When I modestly asked Mason for his autograph, he signed my book, “To my favorite anime character.” Finally, someone gets me. However, despite my affection for Mason, I’m also rife with jealousy, so expect a fair and honest review.
I actually enjoy CCLaP’s novellas. This is not the first one I purchased—although this one does have a few typos that were over-looked. Not an abundance—certainly not as many as, say, Shogun, but enough that I noticed them and have chosen to introduce them as my first lash against Sad Robot Stories. I understand that Columbia College’s fiction department didn’t put a huge emphasis on spelling and grammar, but c’mon, Mason. You edit stuff for work.
That aside, I have very few other complaints about this book. The descriptions, though brief, acknowledge the most honest details about each character in order to portray accurate, extraordinary pictures of the lives they live. And though most of the characters in this book meet their end as a result of the apocalypse, from Robot’s non-sentimental point-of-view, those characters contrive a sentiment unique in its own way as they muse about their lives, their pasts, their “futures.” In a strange way, despite how short-lived some characters were, I grew very attached to them and spent each page waiting for them to come back again. I won’t give anything away, but Johnson is very imaginative when it comes to surprising his audience.
Though Robot lacks sentiment, the narration, despite being from Robot’s point-of-view, is purposefully unreliable. What that means for this book is that, despite all hope and pain the audience feels, it comes a lot sharper because of the narrator, who chooses to include herself in spite of playing little role in Robot’s story. This sharpness is perpetuated by the narrator’s own distance from the characters and their fates, allowing us to perceive struggle in a way that’s almost objective, even in all of its subjectivity. Johnson doesn’t pound an idea into us to make us give a shit—he merely tells it straight through a point-of-view with fictitious admissions, leaving us to wonder whether that very straightness is as accurate as the story that Mason himself conceived or if it became mired heavily by the perceptions of his characters as they filled the shoes of other characters. It’s like if Catcher in the Rye were told from the point of view of Holden’s little sister, Pheobe. Except, in this case, Holden is a non-emoting robot. Or Salinger. No, Holden.
I think the most marvelous part of all is the titular moments of the story. These instances, in their own way, are the story. Sad Robot Stories is the story of a sad robot telling sad stories, sad robot stories. I thought, at first, Mason was just fucking with me when I heard the title of this book, but no moment, not even the book’s title, is wasted. Each word is carefully chosen in order to move the story quickly, at the pace of a novella, while telling the story as fully and meaningfully as possible. Whenever each line is cast out into the literary sea, they all seem to be hooked in the same fish’s mouth as the book builds to its paramount ending, one so profound with emotion that I almost shed a tear, despite imagining Mason’s handsome face smugly grinning at me after I remembered the author.
I suppose you can overlook typos. I know that when the quality of the work shines through in spite of them, I can. Though the editorial system may not have been quite so robotic, the story wasn’t either. It’s carefully littered with meaning, emotion, and character, pureed into one beautiful, imaginative, powerful, sad, robot story. I have no other alternative but to give Mason the rating he deserves.
The Riahi Rating:
About the publisher:
CCLaP, or the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, is a small-press publisher that’s been hitting hard on getting emerging writers out there, to share their voices with the world in a very underrated medium, the novella. Their first work I read was by Lauryn Allison Lewis, called Solo/Down, which I very much enjoyed too, so the quality certainly shows. I recently had the opportunity to chat with their editor-in-chief on facebook, and while I don’t have a transcript on hand, I can say that there’s big things coming for this company. If you’ve got the work and you think it’s worth a shot, pay them a visit, read their pieces, and send them some of your own. It may take you further than you ever anticipated.
This is a great review!
The only thing I disagree with: no one has ever weighed their hopes on me.
I appreciate Behn’s appreciate for the little moments and the narration.