Leading up to the release of The Tanglewood Terror, I posted a series of short thought pieces on the ingredients of that book called “Tangled Themes.” I can’t come up with a label as good for The Winter of the Robots, but I want to do a similar series.
I’ll begin with the bad guys. The Winter of the Robots has some, sort of, from the menacing dinosaur-styled robots (one of whom graces the cover) to morally suspect humans. I don’t want to give much away, but this might be my first book with a bona-fide antagonist. There are really none in my first three novels or any of my chapter books. I have foils, but no villains, especially not of the cackling Voldemortian stamp.
I don’t really believe in good guys and bad guys. Most of my favorite books and movies don’t have them, and in my own life my challenges have been overcoming a more frustrating kind of adversity that doesn’t have the courtesy to present itself as something with a head I can lop off. This is true in my books, too, where kids struggle with aspects of themselves and against natural phenomena and against well-meaning adults but not against wicked adversaries. They might be annoyed or frustrated with others, but those others are never evil… perhaps the worst thing anyone has done in any of my books is take a plastic bucket from a pig, for a few seconds.
I knew early on that The Winter of the Robots would be a different kind of story, with higher stakes. There is real physical danger and a real menace. There are actual criminals and criminal behavior, though at least some of it is indulged in by the protagonist and his associates.
But robots are just doing what they’re programmed to do, and the people who programmed them meant for them to do those things in a completely different context. At heart this book is about the real, complex form of “evil” as I have experienced it–people and machines doing what they’re supposed to do, convinced in their circuits that it is necessary.
The is a more palpable evil, too — lying, cheating, stealing, and other shortcuts people take to get what they want. It is always rationalized as necessary or at least permissible in the circumstances, to avoid a severe and undeserved fate. But the protagonists do it as much as the antagonists, and the only difference is a moment or two of reflection and regret.
It’s not really starkly different from the first form, and the worst things they do, they do for love.