Monday, May 6, 2013

Can a Story Change Your Life? - C.O.L.A.R., by Alfred Slote

As I'd planned on approaching this series chronologically, I began this entry by searching as far back in my memory as I could for first story that gripped me long after I'd read it cover to cover and had set it aside.  It may be that I'm forgetting something that came earlier - something that influenced me so subtlety and formatively that I can't even remember it - but when I searched for the earliest story that should feature in this series, Alfred Slote's C.O.L.A.R.: A Tale of Outer Space (1981) immediately sprang to mind.

In fiction market parlance, C.O.L.A.R. is a chapter book:  shorter than a novel and embellished with full-page illustrations interspersed between the prose.  As might be guessed from any title containing a punctuated acronym - especially one from the 1980s - it's science fiction.  As the middle book in Slote's "Robot Buddy" series (inaugurated with My Robot Buddy in 1975), C.O.L.A.R. predictably centers around a secret colony of androids which is happened upon by the Jameson family, including the viewpoint character Jack Jameson and his robot-buddy-turned-brother Danny.  The tensions arising from this inciting incident are predictable - but in a story intended for 6-12 year olds, this is perhaps more of a virtue than a vice - and well-positioned to test the core relationship between Jack and Danny that underlies Slote's entire series.

Although I would defend C.O.L.A.R. as a fine example of what a chapter book should strive to be, it would be a stretch to say that so simple and straightforward a story should have the inherent potency to make a person better simply for having read it.  Instead, its place in this series is earned not by its intrinsic attributes, but rather by its effect on the reader - in this case, me.

Even in grade school, I craved stories about human-like robots and androids.  I suppose those tropes more than any other were why I naturally gravitated to science fiction as a genre.  But at least at my school and local libraries, stories featuring androids aimed at a younger audience were very hard to come by.  Finding C.O.L.A.R. - which I found before My Robot Buddy or the other books of the series - opened my eyes to the possibilities, and gave the first satisfying scratch to an itch I, until that point, hadn't fully realized that I had.  At least part of the impulse that led me to begin writing stories of my own were rooted in the fact that there weren't enough stories already out there that fit my personal list of top-tier criteria.

But beyond checking off so many boxes from my list of favorite tropes, I think what made C.O.L.A.R. resonate so deeply might have been its optimistic take on a question that has dominated the robot trope in science fiction:  When humanity makes machines in its own image, how will it treat the darlings of its genius?  And how then will our creations regard us, its creators?  The trope of robots who rise up against their creators is a staple of science fiction, and C.O.L.A.R. taps into that tradition.  Yet it subverts it by strengthening the notion of those robots as humanity's children - the robots of C.O.L.A.R. are actually made to look like and act like human children - and proposing that, as with real children, both nature (or design) and nurture (experience) have a role to play in what they become.  Those heralding an inevitable robot apocalypse might disagree, but I've long anticipated that the more perfected our creations become, the more they will be predisposed to resemble their creators, faults and all.  The question, then, is whether we as a whole will cast ourselves in a positive or negative light.  If, as I suspect, that our good outweighs the bad, the same balance will be struck in those who come into being from us - biological, technological, or otherwise.

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