The premise of the novel is fairly simple. Clara is a skilled in tech, especially in working with and repairing the small AI companions that many people prefer. (Think of them as pets of a sort) Because of her childhood, Clara has adopted a drifter kind of lifestyle, never staying in one town too long. Luckily her skills are in high demand and she never has to worry about finding a job in whatever new city she lands in. And she never really regrets leaving people and places behind.
Sal tests Clara’s resolve to never settle down. Though not flesh and blood, Sal is one of the rare fully autonomous robots left in the world, since they’d been outlawed for ethical reasons long before. With her owner long dead, she has life of sorts taking care of the aging tea shop, but she isn’t really living. Throw in the occasional threats of violence and shop vandalism because of what she is, Sal finds herself sinking into a depression. Both their lives are changed when Clara’s love of tea and a recommendation draws her into Sal’s shop.
Despite the short nature of this book I felt the characters were really well done. Katz did a wonderful job showing the personalities of Clara and Sal, as well as their histories and the reasons for their current state of mind. All this was done without any sort of massive data dump. It felt very organic. Even Clara’s AI hummingbird, Joanie had an interesting and distinct personality. I enjoyed Joanie’s foil to Clara’s more somber and less snarky self. But of course, Clara programmed her to be a nearly opposite personality.
And with Sal, we see someone who is deeply affected by loss, a real person without being human. And despite her non-organic status, she feels fear and heartbreak like any other. I found Clara sweet as much as I empathized with Sal, and both were characters I’d like to see more of.
The Writing Style
Meredith Katz does an excellent job with pacing. Being a novella, there isn’t a lot of time and space to tell the story but she does so masterfully. Perhaps it was because she didn’t bog the reader down with superfluous details, or unnecessary encounters. We’re introduced to each character, are made to see their motivations, they meet each other, then events unfold that bring them to the book’s ending. I wasn’t left feeling that the book was incomplete or bloated.
I love most things robot-oriented and tech centered. I also like the diversity of this novel. In it you see Clara’s fascination with Sal, and not completely realistic robot that passes for human in the vaguest sense. How could such a potential relationship work? Sal could still feel emotions, could express herself, she was just incapable of and sort of sexual reception. What better person to meet emotionally attach to than an asexual tech woman like Clara? Very well done!
The length of course. This could have certainly been longer. Could have even been interesting to show bits of Sal’s last relationship from hundreds of years prior. But I knew what I was getting when I downloaded it. *sigh*
Oh man, this book was a beautiful short read. There was no definitive timeline for the reader to reject the notion of AI out of hand. While short, the story was real and compelling. In the past I’ve had a hard time connecting to asexual romance, not because I believe it’s invalid, but rather because it’s not my experience. This is the first novel where I felt connected and it was so surprising and wonderful when I realized how things could work. It was a fun and thought-provoking little read and I definitely recommend this for the light science geek with an interest in robots. It wasn’t too heavy and it managed to be both cute and surprisingly deep with the inclusion of Sal’s thoughts.
Excerpt from The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz
“Sal picked up the small teapot on her tray and put it beside Clara’s food, then turned over the teacup on the table so it was facing upright. “Of course.”
“Did I, or we, upset you? I imagine you’re often treated as a bit of an oddity, huh.”
“I am a bit of an oddity,” Sal said. Her face was turned away from Clara, making it even harder to read her.
“Nobody told me in advance, so I was a bit surprised to see you,” Clara said. Then, a bit more quietly, she repeated, “And did we upset you?”
Sal made a noise in her throat, an uncomfortable wordless verbalization. “Only at first,” she said. “I gathered from your words to your Joanie that you are some sort of robotic technician?”
“Yeah. I mostly work on Raises.”
“Then it’s only natural that you’d be curious about me,” Sal said.
That was a ‘yes,’ then—if only at first, as she’d said. But Clara suspected that it wasn’t that she’d reassured Sal at all—she’d done nothing to make up for it but ask about tea. Rather, Sal was probably accustomed to personal questions out of nowhere. She bit her lower lip, considering Sal. “Mm. Thing is, as an AI specialist, I know what degree of a sense of self you have. I mean—I know that you’re not a ‘novelty’. You’re a person. So… sorry about that.”
Sal’s face jerked toward her, a startled, sudden movement, and all the lenses in her eyes seemed to contract at once. “I’m not.”
“A person. I’m not.”
Clara let out a huff of air. “You’re not human, but I’d think—”
“Law though,” she said, with an audible eye roll. “I just mean… I won’t push it, but I wanted to say sorry. Seeing you got me excited. It’s my first time interacting with an actual robot rather than a Raise. But it’s no excuse. I was rude.”
“Oh,” Sal said. She straightened, fidgeted with her tray, holding it to her chest. “It’s all right.”
“Also, I really like tea, and I both live and work in the area. So I’d like to come back, but I won’t if I bothered you…?” She turned the statement into a question, lilting up at the end, in the hopes it would get her an answer.
“No, please,” Sal said. “You’d be welcome.” Her thin lips curled in a smile again, and she added, “If you like the tea, anyway.”
Clara did, in fact, like both the tea and the food, and by the time she had paid up her bill, she was already planning on coming back. Though, if she were honest with herself, it was more the company than the food alone.
Part of it was, she had to admit, how unusual Sal was. Given her specialty, a robot like Sal was a creation she had a constant background interest in. She’d read probably hundreds of articles, studied so much code, came up against all kinds of historical cases, but never met one. She knew she had been rude, and felt a bit guilty for that, but she could still step back and see where her desire to get to know Sal better came from.
But at the same time, as she had said to Sal, knowing more than the average person also made her more aware of the things Sal might face. Knowing how genuine even a limited AI’s emotions could be made her realize that Sal must, at this point, be used to constantly being treated as a thing. Clara was sure it went even deeper than that. Sal was made hundreds of years earlier. That alone would be alienating. The world around her was constantly changing, the social landscape along with it. People would come and go—even if losing others was part of living, Sal would lose everyone, sooner or later. Even the laws which determined her own legal standing had changed back and forth over time. And throughout it all, she’d be considered an aberration, a belonging, an oddity.
It made Clara want to offer something more. Maybe everybody Sal would meet would move on, but without any connection, what was the point?”
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