September 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell)
Intimacy and privacy blur as people adopt cybernetic pets inhabited remotely by others, in this disturbing speculative fiction

So, who’s this cutie? Aww. It purrs. It blinks. It rolls across the floor. It’s the perfect plaything and doesn’t need feeding, toileting or walking. It is here to amuse. And it needn’t be a kitten or a puppy. You can have this companion in multiple forms: crow, panda, dragon, mole, rabbit.

There is one responsibility. If you are its keeper you have to make sure it is charged. If it dies… that’s all, folks. Connection lost for eternity. 

Samanta Schweblin is a speculative writer profoundly, urgently involved with the implications of the tech revolution. She is noted for her cast of mind: original, heraldic and sinister. Little Eyes (Oneworld) describes our craving for an emblematic fantasy world enabled through AI. Once upon a time, fantasy belonged to fairytales, benign days when the words once upon a time were confined to the world of children. What happens in a world where no one wants to grow up? When fun and amusement have more weight than love or kindness? Where privacy is meaningless because there are no boundaries? Can you have intimacy without privacy? Keep in mind the origin of “sinister”, from the Latin meaning “left” and attracting concepts of maliciousness and underhandedness. Hello, little furballs whirring along on tiny trolleys.

These machines are called “kentukis”, and are a cross between a mechanical stuffed animal and a smartphone. They have a camera behind their eyes, a small speaker and a battery. They also have dual points of connection. You can be a “keeper” or a “dweller”. If you are a keeper, you buy one that lives in your house and goes everywhere with you. They are not cheap, but they are affordable. If you are a dweller, you pay to be the camera inside the kentuki. Like smartphones, they have infiltrated every part of the world and you take potluck with your connection. There is an inbuilt translation service but the obsessed find other ingenious ways to communicate. In Lima, an older woman, Emilia, barely computer literate, wonders why her son would sign her up as a kentuki dweller. But a few days in, she’s charmed by her connection to a keeper: Emilia inhabits a bunny for the amusement of Eva, a young woman in Germany with a nose-ring, and Emilia’s lonely life starts to bloom. In Mexico, a young woman who feels neglected by her artist partner buys a crow kentuki, thinking it will amuse them both. It doesn’t end well. In Italy, a divorced father, allowed to see his son on strict terms set by his ex-wife, reluctantly allows a kentuki into their lives. Just as reluctantly he comes to admire it because it is courteous, kind, helpful and always wants to attend to his son. His son, however, wants it dead.

If you want fuel for nightmares, this is your book.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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