The place: outer space. The time: the future. The situation: the class divide that we see in present-day America magnified to a ludicrous, outlandish degree, where robots (or in the world of Andrew Smith’s Rabbit and Robot, “cogs”) have taken all of the jobs except for soldiers, “bonks,” or “rabbits” who fight in one of over twenty pointless wars, and programmers who create the next generation of cogs. The landscape: bleak, fractured, polluted, destabilized enlivened only by violent, mindless television—such as the program “Rabbit & Robot,” from which the novel derives its title—and ingesting copious amounts of the drug “Woz.” The tone: somewhere in the realm of Catch-22 meets Doonesbury meets science fiction.
Indeed, the entire of Smith’s rollocking amplification of the United States’ worst militaristic, anti-intellectual, uncurious tendencies can be summed up in the following sentence: “It seemed like every boy in America—future coders and bonks alike, thanks to “Rabbit & Robot”—knew the precise make, caliber, and specs of every gun in existence, even if none of our boys could accurately point out more than two or three countries on a map of the world.” In this world that is almost completely automated, the only vocations that are worthy of humanity are the ones where you either kill other people or render them obsolete. The media of that world—exemplified by the in-book show “Rabbit & Robot” (which tells the story of a “rabbit” (soldier) and his cog, who dies in increasingly gory ways in each episode)—replicates that brutality as entertainment.
When I first picked up Rabbit and Robot, which was published in 2018, I had to check online multiple times whether it was a sequel to some book I hadn’t yet read. The narrative drops you right into the thick of a world that is recognizable in some ways and hyper-exaggeratedly surrealistic in others, and doesn’t stop to give you exposition beyond what is strictly necessary. There’s large chunks of world-building and idiosyncratic vocabulary to familiarize yourself with quickly—“bonks,” “rabbits,” “Woz,” the sociopolitical reality of this version of future Earth. The novel essentially starts with the literary version of the classic, now-memed cold opening of “*record scratch* *freeze frame* Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation”—except the situation in which protagonist Cager Messer finds himself is in orbit on a spaceship with no one but his best friend Billy and his caretaker Rowan, dealing with a sexually aggressive robot boy, the crying robot tiger eating their clothes, and a French robot giraffe who destroys said robot tiger. “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation,” indeed—and how Cager and company got into this situation is as important thematically as how they attempt to survive it.
Cager Messer, the son of one of the richest men on earth (who owns said spaceship and produces “Rabbit & Robot”), has never been to school or interacted organically with anyone his own age, save for Billy Hinman, the devil-may-care bisexual son of the other richest man on earth (wealth created by developing the cogs). Cager Messer is, in all actuality, a teenager who will grow up to become a Large Adult Son—incredibly pampered, unable to handle difficult things on his own because he’s never had to work a day in his life, unfamiliar with the real world or consequences, and bound to embarrass his father one day. Cager is also addicted to the drug Woz; the action of the novel kicks into gear when Billy spirits him away to the aforementioned spaceship (more like a space cruise ship) to forcibly dry him out.
Unfortunately, while Cager, Billy, and Cager’s taciturn caretaker-servant-butler Rowan are in space, the entire world devolves into even more war, bringing the total up to thirty simultaneous destructive armed conflicts. Unable to return to planet Earth, Cager, Billy, and Rowan have the entire hollow, spectacular world of the space cruiser to themselves, with its zoo, ballrooms, dining rooms, perfectly fake recreations of nature, and a plethora of cogs to tend to their every need—except for actual human companionship. Meanwhile, teenage girls Meg and Jeffrie, hoping to get away from their lives on Earth, stow away onto the ship, only to find that they’re stranded in space as well. To add even more conflict, a virus has begun to infect the cogs on board, turning them increasingly erratic and violent as the novel wears own.
The pacing of Rabbit and Robot is often nothing less than exhausting in its endlessly propulsive energy and commitment to its own heightened reality. While this writing style is engaging at first, it begins to earn diminishing returns over the course of the story. Cager, Billy, Meg, and Jeffrie are written with varying degrees of depth and realism. Cager’s own limited first-person perspective (limited in more ways than one) slowly evolves as he gains the ability to interact with people who are not Billy. Jeffrie’s status on board the spaceship takes on an increasing urgency over the source of the novel—as a trans girl reliant on puberty blockers, her anxiety about being trapped in space is compounded by mounting gender dysphoria.
However, Rabbit and Robot really belongs to the cogs. This aspect of the novel is likely intentional, as Smith seems to take enormous pleasure in writing occasionally gross robot-related humor, and also seems to enjoy characterizing the cogs that are designed to serve humanity in the most deliberately annoying and insufferable ways possible. The humanoid cogs with whom our protagonists interact with on the spaceship are alternately helium-brained levels of overjoyed, incandescent with rage, depressed and in tears, or incredibly sexually aroused, with no gradations for different social situations. Parker, Cager’s valet cog, consistently tries to seduce him, while hostess cog Lourdes can only scream about how excited she is and fart. It’s hard not to relate the cyclical way the cogs’ emotions are presented in the book as a commentary on how our lives in the present day, our brains hyper-saturated with endless amounts of information, often feel like an endless cycle of depression, desire, elation, and outrage.
I began writing this review in a world that was—and is in many ways still—in lockdown mode. While now, depending on state and city regulations, we can go outside and enjoy some facsimile of normal life in some cases, my universe still is largely defined by the contours of my bedroom, my apartment, my roommates, my often-isolated walks, the nearby Whole Foods, and chats with friends on Zoom and social media. It’s not quite the same as being trapped in a spaceship as Earth burns, but it feels as close as I’d personally like to get.
Rabbit and Robot is a novel that conveys both the claustrophobic, helpless feeling of observing the world falling apart around you, and the exhausting hyper-stimulation of all of the attractions we rely upon to distract ourselves from being completely consumed by the former feeling. The overall emotional result is a cynical, raw numbness that, as the novel argues, can only truly be dispelled by finding things and people you can become invested in and care about on a deeply personal level .