[Riverhead Books; 2020]
Tr. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
While most of the world is anticipating an eventual AI takeover, Argentinian literary phenom Samanta Schweblin takes us to task for worrying about the wrong thing. The more pressing danger, as she chillingly illuminates in her most recent novel, Little Eyes, is the havoc that can be wrought by humans playing with robotic technology. The exponential growth in power a cyborg reality affords can mask the real, moral consequences of human actions. What does a world without reliable moral consequences look like, and what does it mean for humanity as a whole? Schweblin expertly presents this unregulated world to us in intertwining stories of palpable suspense.
Schweblin achieves a “Black Mirror-esque” effect in the novel by intertwining several storylines of varying duration, unrelated except for the phenomenon of kentukis (robotic pets living in one home yet controlled by a stranger halfway around the world). The pairing is randomly generated and self-sustaining, unchecked by any omniscient third party. The interdependence that develops between the beings on either side of this robotic technology extends their boundaries beyond the human into the realm of the cyborg. The effects of this extension manifest as a haunting warning of the consequences inherent in unregulated entanglements of humanity and technology. These are consequences that are not meted out fairly or justly, but run rampant and puncture the moral network of humanity itself.
The original title of the novel, as published in Argentina in 2018, is Kentukis. While the title has changed, the subject remains the kentukis. Kentuki owners are called “keepers.” Kentuki controllers are called “dwellers” —- they purchase a code that, when activated, connects them to an actual kentuki and allows them to “live” virtually within the kentuki from a remote distance-anywhere in the world- via computer control. The cyborg connection between keeper and dweller is the source of Schweblin’s alarming, electrifying plot.
One of the novel’s strongest techniques in building this sense of alarm is its choice to intersperse small chunks of many separate narratives, with kentukis as the only connecting thread. Each chapter title indicates the narrative it contains by naming its setting: Antigua, Lima, Umbertide, Zagreb, and more. Some narratives are given only one chapter —- Vancouver, Sierra Leone, and Barcelona —- while others get up to six chapters —- Lima and Oaxaca. This multiplicity of storylines and random fluctuation of designated chapters fuels a heightened sense of tension and suspense, especially because each storyline dies alongside its kentuki keeper/dweller connection: “‘One connection per purchase’ was the manufacturers’ policy.” Schweblin develops a poignant way of indicating this severance, citing the exact lifetime of the now-dead connection, as though it had been something alive. The Vancouver chapter ends, “When the LED lights on the K087937525 finally went out, its total connection time had been only one minute and seventeen seconds.”
The multiple narratives work also to deliver a vast sense of scope grounded in specific moments of empathy. Some narratives are from the perspective of a kentuki dweller, and some from the perspective of a kentuki keeper. Some characters are old, like Emilia, the retired single mother living alone in Lima whose corporate son sent her a kentuki code to keep her busy, and some are young, like Marvin, the school-age boy in Antigua dwelling in a kentuki during the long hours he spends “studying” each night per the orders of his authoritarian father. All narratives end in a dystopia of technological unease, brought about by the kentuki connection.
What does Schweblin achieve by introducing a plethora of unique storylines, only to have each culminate in a technological nest of apprehension and unease? She gives us, the readers, a cautionary tale about the repercussions inevitably suffered by playing fast and loose with the entanglements of human and robot. We witness the humans in each storyline lose confidence and control in their attempts to dominate the technology they have chosen to participate in, with fable-like moral consequences. The singularity of Schweblin’s moral consequences, however, is that unlike in a human fable, where only the human perpetrator suffers and repents, the cyborg fable compounds the suffering in unforeseeable ways. The dangerous power of the cyborg is its ability to circumvent or hide from accountability and moral regulation, two consequences that are traditionally inherent in human fables. The real danger in indulging this power, as Schweblin makes clear, is that the consequences of such circumvention fall not only upon the perpetrator, but also upon bystanders unlucky enough to be ensnared in the unpredictable net thrown by a kentuki connection. The result of this net is humanity at large as collateral damage. In a cyborg fable, anyone can suffer the consequences. This function of Schweblin’s writing is perhaps the most disturbing — the repercussions of human/robot entanglement can be fully unassociated from and unintended by the primary perpetrators, yet unfold anyway.
One storyline in particular stands out to illustrate this function; Grigor, a recently laid off man living in Zagreb with his aging father, decides his “fallback” plan will be to buy up kentuki codes and resell for a profit once he’s established connections to kentuki keepers. He wants to go all in now and get out soon, saying “when these new technologies come on to the market . . . you have to make the most of the legal lag time before everything is regulated.” Months later, business is flourishing, and no regulations have caught up to him, despite the fact that kentukis are thriving and omnipresent. He notices them “on the news all the time, in local-color stories or reports on fraud, theft, and extortion . . . It was almost a miracle that there was still no regulation on the use of kentukis.” Kentukis are everywhere, and people are at liberty to engage with them and through them to the limits of human creativity (a limit considerably widened by the toolkit of today’s technology).
The ending of Grigor’s story, the termination of his most important kentuki connection, reveals a sobering consequence of this unregulated cyborg connection. Grigor discovers a kidnapped girl through one of the kentukis he dwells in. Using all the technology available to him, he figures out where the girl’s home is and connects with police throughout the world to rescue her. However, in Grigor’s final scene, he realizes that despite his good intentions, his virtual meddling has had horrible ramifications; through the kentuki, he sees the kidnappers visit the girl’s father and say “‘Your girl is back, man. Don’t you get it? If the girl came home, the money goes back into the Don’s wallet.’” He realizes “he didn’t want to move anyone else from one inferno to another . . . without even bothering to get the kentuki out of that house first, he cut the connection.” It may have been exhilarating to play the hero in the virtual “game” of kentuki connection, but the sobering intrusion of real-life politics and human consequences leaves Grigor feeling uneasy and even culpable. Intentional or not, the vicarious thrill of not just peeking, but living, virtually, in another’s life, carries enormous real-life repercussions.
Schweblin is unrelenting on the inevitability of these repercussions. Her most effective storyline, which closes out the novel as a sort of endgame statement, is that of Alina, a young Mexican woman living at an artist’s colony in Oaxaca while her artist husband, Sven, works there. Alina’s story chillingly drives home Schweblin’s message despite — and because of — Alina’s persistent refusal to communicate with the dweller in the kentuki she keeps, dubbed “Colonel Sanders.” All other developed storylines feature attempts at relationship-building or communication-building between dweller and keeper, from improvised alphabets written on the floor, to exchanged telephone numbers, to rudimentary “yes/no” body language. Alina resolutely refuses to engage in any connection with Colonel Sanders, believing that “without a way of communicating, the kentuki was relegated to the simple function of a pet.” To prevent such a connection from developing, she even begins punishing the kentuki for attempted communication; she cuts off its beak (it’s a crow), stabs its eyes with a knife, ties it up so it can’t reach its charger, even forces it to watch “kentuki porn.”
When her husband unveils his secretive art exhibition, displaying a video of a kentuki keeper simultaneously with a video depicting that kentuki’s dweller, Alina witnesses a voyeuristic dweller lasciviously watching through his connection as his kentuki’s female keeper undresses for bed; “Alina imagined herself with Sven in bed, seen from the Colonel’s eyes. But she knew none of this could happen to her, she’d been very careful, she’d protected herself from this kind of user since the very first day.” Schweblin writes Alina as the anticipator of any argument against a depiction of kentukis as alarmingly dystopic — oh, but the users just weren’t careful enough, as long as you don’t treat your kentuki like an intelligent lifeform, you’ll be fine, nothing bad can happen. But Schweblin’s dystopia prevails. After seeing the first simultaneous keeper/dweller video display, Alina walks in on a video of herself with Colonel Sanders, including all the punishments she inflicted, playing next to a video of the crying seven-year-old boy who’d been on the other side.
As successful as Schweblin is in creating an overwhelmingly thorough study of the havoc kentukis would wreak on a global, technology-hungry world, the alarm and unease that permeates us as readers derives from one final triumph in Schweblin’s writing: she manages to craft this whole novel in a world that is entirely possible at this moment in time. It is within our technological capacity to develop something akin to kentukis, and within our human avarice to exploit and devour it as displayed in Schweblin’s narrative. Beyond even this dire painting of humanity’s capacity for exploiting technologically bestowed power, however, is the ultimate danger — the vast power of the cyborg, intended or not, to reveal and ravage the vulnerability and tenuousness of human life. In the cyborg fable, it’s not just the perpetrator who suffers at the end — the moral codes that have built and maintained human society become not only obsolete but meaningless, dissolved along with the boundary dividing human and machine.
Little Eyes is a dystopic take on the direction our technology is headed. It brushes the abyss of the surreal, but avoids plunging into it with a plot that could reasonably take place today. It’s a timely release in a world that suddenly finds itself relying more heavily on virtual interactions. Schweblin’s deft handling of the repercussions that result from using these interfaces to push the boundaries of the human into the realm of the cyborg has real resonance for the virtual world we’re rushing to develop today. Our increasing inseparability from cellular phones, preoccupation with social media, and burgeoning Zoom culture all reflect this push. Relying so heavily on cyborgs for societal communication and function, as she warns, can backfire and deconstruct the very network of humanity they have been developed to maintain. Little Eyes is an important read as we buckle in for what promises to be a long slog to societal recovery at this global moment, towing our ever-vulnerable humanity with us all the way.
Cara McManus is an MA student in English Literature and a teacher in the Composition Department at The City College of New York. She has performed around the world with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and sees unending overlap between words and movement.