In the Lives of Puppets is an ostensible retelling of Pinocchio, one in which Victor is a twenty-one-year-old human surrounded by machines. One day, with his creations Rambo and Nurse Ratched by his side, he brings back to life Hap, an android that proves lethal in every sense. And as their world is quickly imperiled by robots bent on extinguishing the human race, more than hearts and memory are at stake.
Klune’s style is endlessly captivating, conveying the ethereality of the fairytale setting which he quickly strips of any naïveté. This attention to the smallest detail is evident in something as marginal as their surroundings, “There were old music boxes that sang little songs that ached.”
It’s no wonder that from the first page, we’re filled with a sense of tenderness. It balloons when we’re introduced to Rambo and Nurse Ratched, two robots that are devoid of hearts but prove more endearing than most of nature’s creations.
Rambo, a tiny, innocent, and pure vacuum cleaner, carries the spirit of youth, while Nurse Ratched’s cheeky and slightly sociopathic disposition accentuates moments of binding affection. Ultimately, their interactions with each other and the world around them make for some of the most comical ever penned.
By Klune’s design, emotions act as physical manifestations of powers beyond the grasp of both Man and the machine created in his likeness. Giovanni, the originator of his beloved son, serves to depict this most bitingly, having been “at peace until the day his chest began to hurt,” succumbing to the destabilizing effects of loneliness.
His love for Vic is fundamental, and the latter’s devotion to his Dad acts at once as the band holding the narrative together, and its greatest source of resistance. The father-son relationship presented on the pages of In the Lives of Puppets is, therefore, a thing to behold, complex and tectonic in all its fragility.
This sentiment extends to Vic’s makeshift family, allowing the humorous and heartfelt exchanges between them to surpass the expectations of any grand architect. Hap, the most alluring being Vic has ever known, adds to this impression, wielding the peril of his existence as a source of strain — romantic and otherwise — within Vic’s life.
From a distance, In the Lives of Puppets seems to marry The Matrix with The Wizard of Oz, bridging the dichotomies between them with deft storytelling. And so, we’re left with the topical conflict between Man and machine, emotion and logic, wistfulness and want.
However, whatever moral and philosophical gravity is introduced, it’s immediately counterbalanced by enough impish, situational humor to allow the narrative to retain its magical ambiance.
As the relationship between humans and AI moves to the fore, the weight of connection makes itself more felt, calling for empathy and a deeper appreciation of the finite means of our existence,
“Searching for a connection. Making something out of nothing so the spaces between us do not seem so far.”
Vic’s link to the life he creates, particularly Hap’s, is highly reminiscent of Frankenstein’s affinity for his Creature, though Mary Shelley’s work was devoid of the homoeroticism that permeates In the Lives of Puppets.
Nevertheless, we end up bargaining with similar motifs of life, obligation, guilt, forgiveness, and creationism. Klune’s novel is, understandably, rather profound. Its greatest appeal seems to stem from its unpredictability; as though, by aiming to unsettle itself, the narrative seeks to simulate the course of a human lifetime.
The group’s venture beyond the forest is tense and frequently ominous, with plenty of twists that prove shocking enough to wound the coldest of exteriors. This unease sinks beneath wood and metal, delineating the evolution of Hap’s feelings:
‘What you are feeling now might be considered happiness.’
‘It’s terrible,’ Hap said. ‘I want to p-punch something.’ And with that, he turned and began to punch the metal walls of the bunker.
Through these fluctuations in intensity and the growing pains of his conscience, we are treated to a superb deconstruction of emotion, made all the more true by its contradictory forms.
Gradually, as Vic and his friends plunge deeper into the maw of the life-annihilating Machine, Klune treats us more expressly to the breakdown of a civilization that’s striving against a failure of its own making.
Aside from our climate crisis, this angle brings to mind E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, a short story that illustrates how a civilization’s all-consuming dependence on machines can lead to a loss of incentive to understand its inner workings, as well as the people involved.
With the dangers of conformity pointing to a loss of control, free will subjugated by one’s “purpose” within a society, and conscience smothered by damaging notions of rationale, In the Lives of Puppets keeps astounding with its depth — both emotive and thematic.
It’s aided by incredible narrative pacing and a general celebration of life in all its forms, from the minutest of butterflies to the outward imperfections that make up one’s charm,
“Be it man or machine, Victor thought, to love something meant loving the ghost inside, to be haunted by it.”
Overall, Klune’s novel is a tale of tenderness and passion, camaraderie and family, courage and resilience, as well as hope for a more conscious and benevolent co-existence.
In the Lives of Puppets will be published by Tor Books on April 25, 2023.