Book review: Set My Heart To Five, by Simon Stephenson

A robot dentist follows in a great literary tradition of satire, exploring an anarchic alternative world worthy of Terry Pratchett, writes Stuart Kelly

Simon Stephenson has written a screen adaptation of the novel which has been snapped up by production company Working Title. Photograph: N Zubia
Simon Stephenson has written a screen adaptation of the novel which has been snapped up by production company Working Title. Photograph: N Zubia

The ingénu is one of the archetypal characters of literature. Indeed, the novel might even begin with an ingénu in Don Quixote, a guileless eccentric with a unique view on the world, whose folly often shames the proud and the supposedly wise. It is certainly there in Voltaire’s Candide and more recently in Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump (the film adaptation of which is referenced in this book).

The ingénu is often catapulted into various forms of chaotic picaresque. Simon Stephenson, who won the Best First Book at the Scottish Book Awards for his unbearably poignant study of grief, Let Not The Waves Of The Sea, about the death of his brother in the Boxing Day tsunami, now presents his first novel. It is rare for a novel to be genuinely funny and truly touching, and to also to raise significant philosophical questions.

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The ingénu in Set My Heart To Five is Jared, a rather boring dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan. But he has more in common with Pinocchio and Lt Commander Data, both technological ingénus. He is a bot, a flesh-and-blood human created from cultured DNA and rapidly grown. His mind, however, is a fleshware digital computer. As he puts it with characteristic self-deprecation, humans should think of him as “a microwave oven with feet! A mobile telephone with arms! A toaster with a heart! BTW I mean a heart in the sense of a mechanical pump, not a bucket of feelings”. He has no friends because he doesn’t have feelings, but he does have algorithms of politeness and engagement, such as to say “Fine!” As for the fact he is a dentist, it has been decided in this future world that “the primary reason bots make such excellent dentists is our complete inability to feel empathy. An empathic dentist – by which I mean a human dentist – could easily become distracted by inappropriate fear, criticism, or even mere crying from a patient.” You might call him content with his lot, although as he would observe, he could not be, as “contentment” is an emotion.

The point which jettisons him onto a quest and into questioning is the appearance of a weird figure in his Number Cloud: 1956864. He has no idea what it means, but deduced swiftly, it is the number of teeth he will treat before he is “retired” in 2070 on the Ides of March – decommissioned, or sent to be wiped. He asks for help from his colleague, the human and drunken Dr Glubdenstein, who sets up an experiment to find out if Jared is clinically depressed. He sends him to the movies. There, to prove that as a bot he cannot be depressed, he sees Love Story and involuntarily weeps “approximately 26ml” of tears. This starts an obsession with movies (many of the funniest parts of the book are his wide-eyed analyses of The Goonies or Field Of Dreams or – cue fateful drum roll – Blade Runner) and it instils in him an ambition: he will go to Los Angeles and become a scriptwriter. From this point the novel ricochets between Las Vegas, Hollywood (or rather a community college creative writing class) and – well, the pleasure is the journey. He is also obsessed with reading RP Williams’ Twenty Golden Rules Of Screenwriting.

That the novel itself both mimics and mocks those rules is just one of its joys. It is structurally elegant, with entire sections made up of whole sentences, then a break. As Jared explains: “You may have already noticed that consistently writing in paragraphs is challenging for a bot! This is because code is written in logical lines and not illogical paragraphs.” The exclamation mark is almost a trademark for him, especially when he explains a joke and ends the explanation “Ha!”, or bot jargon such as “10/10” (ie, you’re spot on) or “turn me up to five” (since he is descended from a toaster). As a bot he is fond of graphs and flow-charts and data streams and logical propositions such as this on superiority: “X>Y Where: X = me And: Y = some other schmuck”. His other favourite phrase is “I cannot” – short for “I cannot believe it!” usually deployed when he encounters some incomprehensible piece of human behaviour. That is the joy of the ingénu, to see the world from a perspective that is both crazy and true. For example, he berates pandas for being “notoriously lackadaisical”.

Pathos, comedy, satire (there is no moon in Jared’s time since Elon Musk blew it up), a car-chase, The Great American Zero Sum game, daftness, a nefarious nemesis, what it means to be human (memory? emotion? reason? always making the wrong decisions?), a ghost section, parodies, anger, and a shining sense of the novel being ultimately a machine that makes humans a little more human if possible. It is probably too ebullient to be taken seriously for prizes.

“BTW” Jared says “the word ‘bibliophile’ used to refer to somebody who particularly loved to read books, but nowadays it denotes anybody who reads for pleasure at all”. You shall read this with unadulterated pleasure. It is the closest thing I’ve read in a long time to Terry Pratchett.

Set My Heart To Five, by Simon Stephenson, Fourth Estate, £14.99

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