Better Living Through Modern Movies
There is a wonderful documentary from a few years back called LIFE, ANIMATED. The film, directed by Roger Ross Williams, follows a young man with autism who learns to connect with the world around him through animated Disney movies. These films help this young man process his complex feelings and emotions by giving him something to connect with. I couldn’t help but think about LIFE, ANIMATED while reading Simon Stephenson’s SET MY HEART TO FIVE.
Stephenson’s novel is about a robot dentist from Michigan who discovers the transformative power of movies, learns he is capable of human emotions, and decides to run away to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. Stephenson himself was formally a pediatric doctor in England before moving to California to work on screenplays, including recent work with Pixar. It makes sense, then, that Stephenson’s literary voice is so on point - a wry, funny, and thoughtful exploration of the transformative power of cinema.
SET MY HEART TO FIVE takes place in 2054 in an America that is at once both Douglas Adams levels of absurd and frighteningly prescient. Elon Musk has incinerated the moon, humanity has locked itself out of the internet because they collectively forgot all their passwords, and robots are used as slaves to do all the menial tasks that humans don’t really want to do themselves, such as dentistry. While humans are only too happy to exploit their robotic labor, they are also extremely terrified at the potential of a robotic uprising. The only kind of movies Hollywood makes in 2054 are films about killer robots. Or serial killers. Or serial killer robots.
Jared, a pleasant-natured dentist bot created through a biomechanical process so that he appears to look like a human but has a mechanical brain, wakes up one day to find out he has inexplicably become depressed. Jarred is fixated on his own robotic mortality - a countdown running through his inner computer of the slowly decaying number of teeth he has left to clean before he will be decommissioned. Unfamiliar with the feeling of sadness, Jarred doesn’t know what to do about his ennui.
On the recommendation of a human medical colleague, Jared travels to Detroit to watch a screening of LOVE STORY at a repertory theater. Startled to discover that the film has made him cry, Jared is even more shocked to learn that he’s capable of other human-like emotions as he continues to watch more and more films. From FOREST GUMP to THE UNTOUCHABLES to BLADE RUNNER, Jarred continues to develop his ability to recognize and experience emotions and feelings. This is a dangerous game, though, because humans - fearful of a robotic uprising - are driven to reprogram or incinerate any robots that appear capable of complex emotions. Before long, Jarred finds himself headed to Los Angeles to try and write a movie that will teach the bot-prejudiced human population that robots are capable of love, loss, and longing.
Once in Hollywood, Jared begins the process of writing his script by hewing closely to the rigged formulas outlined in a battered “How to Write A Movie Script” book he carries around with him. In a move reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s ADAPTATION, Stephenson approaches the second half of his novel in a meta manner, telling Jarred’s own story in a way that is both a dialogue with and a critique on the formulaic structure of so many of the film classics that Jarred fell in love with. The book is a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the hero’s journey, from the perspective of a robot who doesn’t fully understand what it means to be a human, let alone a hero. Stephenson’s outsider narrative approach to the story does a fantastic job of creating a fun and brisk adventure that is also a commentary on the structure of so many adventure stories that have come before.
SET MY HEART TO FIVE is a charming novel about somebody learning how to process their own complex emotional minefield. It’s a book about a robot, but it could have also been a story about somebody with autism or social anxiety. At its base, the story is about somebody using films as a jumping-off point to figuring out their own shit - and that’s something a lot of us are all too keenly familiar with.
At a point in the book, Stephenson writes about how movies are like trailers for life - they are short, cut-together compilations of the best parts of existence. Movies can teach us and heal us and show us how to become better people.
It’s little wonder that, in Simon Stephenson’s SET MY HEART TO FIVE, movies could have the power to make a dentist robot want to change the world.