A teen prodigy’s AI tries to pass for human in this quirky, thought-provoking novel.
A teen computer whiz and his artificial-intelligence protégé return to high school in this inventive YA fiction debut. Though occasionally a bit corny or overtly educational, Mark Duncan’s Bringing Up Mike will certainly provide food for thought when it comes to ethics and different forms of parenthood.
Seventeen-year-old Joe Lawrence is Caltech’s youngest-ever PhD, and the brains behind a new range of AI personal assistants. His virtual PA, Mike, is an erudite joker who imitates celebrity voices but fails to understand basic human morality. When Joe moves to Shelbyville, Tennessee, to live with a kindly older couple and complete his senior year of high school, he and Mike find they both still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to horses, girls, and teenage diplomacy.
The author gives a convincing account of the modern teen experience, including getting a driver’s license, fighting for free speech, worrying about safe sex, attending prom, and applying for colleges. Joe is a particularly suitable tour guide because he is an outsider in the high-school world. No one knows he is actually Dr. Lawrence, computer science genius; they think he is an out-of-state transfer student with a disabled friend who only communicates via Skype. The author lacks a handle on teenage lingo, however; lines like “Hey, girlfriend, I knew we were going to be BFF’s first time we met,” and “You’re the man now, dawg!” sound inauthentic. Clichéd romantic dialogue and a dated cover are similarly cheesy.
The novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Joe, surrogate parents George and Martha, love interests Sue and April, and Mike himself are all believable individuals, each with their own idiosyncrasies and hobbies. The only stereotyped characters are Sue’s criminal stepfather, Sly Capo, and his henchmen, who try stealing back Joe’s stallion. This subplot is largely unnecessary.
A major theme in Bringing Up Mike is alternative family situations: Sue’s unsettled home life, George and Martha’s fostering, and even Joe’s parental role toward Mike. Mike is always asking Joe big questions: What is sin? How does morality influence lawmaking? Meanwhile, Joe himself is clueless about Tennessee life and has to solicit information, often about Civil War reenactment (George’s pastime) or horse breeding (Martha’s). Thus, Joe is perpetually in the position of either imparting or receiving life lessons.
Unfortunately, this constant didacticism overwhelms the novel. There are countless passages in which one character lectures another about something irrelevant to the plot, such as, “A Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed with a unique, four beat running walk having a very smooth gait,” or “Minié balls … caused over ninety percent of Civil War fatalities. When it punched a half-inch hole in a man, it crushed and splintered bones.”
Nevertheless, those interested in robot ethics will find a compelling depiction of learning and altruism in AI machines. As Mike comes closer to passing the Turing Test, he starts to question his identity: “Am I a pet? A slave?” However, Duncan never veers too far into science fiction territory. This quirky, heartfelt novel should appeal to adolescents who fall somewhere between geeks and the popular crowd.
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