You may remember the Tamagotchi. The Japanese hand-held digital pet was launched in 1996 and became a global hit; an American rival, the Furby, came along a couple of years later. Samanta Schweblin’s new novel, which has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize, imagines a new iteration of these robot companions: it’s called the kentuki, and its USP is that it is controlled not by software but by another human being. Each one is internet-enabled, equipped with a two-way webcam and encased within a mobile stuffed animal. Users can play the role of either pet (these are known as ‘dwellers’, because they ‘dwell’ in the toy) or pet owner (these are known as ‘keepers’). It’s a single-use toy: the device connects its owner with a random user somewhere else in the world, and they’re lumbered with them forever more – or at least until one of them pulls the plug.
Little Eyes tells the stories of several pairs of dwellers and keepers living in a number of cities around the globe, from Latin America to the Balkans and the Far East. Their reasons for buying the toys are many and varied. A man gets one for his elderly mother to help her stave off loneliness; a woman in China hopes to learn French from her Lyon-based keeper so that she can one day emigrate to France. For some, the toys service an unrealisable wanderlust: a young man who lives in Antigua becomes obsessed with making his kentuki travel to Scandinavia and getting it to roll around in the snow. One woman experiences a pang of wistfulness as she watches her keeper pottering about the house: ‘She followed Eva to the living room, followed her naked little ass, small and perfect, which filled her with the kind of tenderness she’d felt so many times for her son, when he was still a boy.’
The relationship between keeper and dweller is both high-maintenance and intrusive. One character remarks that ‘having a kentuki running around was the same as handing a stranger the keys to your house’. And so it proves as a series of eminently foreseeable problems arise. One dweller blackmails his keeper, a young woman, after secretly recording her and her friends in a state of undress; a mother whose ex-husband has bought two kentukis for their daughters asks him to return them because she fears they are being used by paedophiles to target children. There are violent calamities: a kentuki senselessly attacks its owners, two young sisters, immediately upon being unboxed, forcing their mother to destroy it; elsewhere a kentuki commits suicide by defenestration.
The element of farce in these proceedings makes for enjoyable reading. As a mildly absurdist situational comedy riffing on everyday human foibles – jealousy, capriciousness, existential restlessness – Little Eyes is competently crafted; the understatedly arch tone is well served by Megan McDowell’s translation, which is so slick that one hardly seems to be reading a translated work. However, to the extent that the novel aspires to be a Black Mirror-esque satire, skewering our ambivalence towards technology by presenting us with a troubling near-dystopian scenario, it doesn’t quite convince. One young woman, explaining the kentuki to her mother, describes it as ‘a cell phone with legs’ – and there’s the rub: these things aren’t really robots at all but souped-up communication devices. Some of Schweblin’s characters refer to their kentukis as ‘it’, but there is something implausible about the idea that someone in possession of such a toy would, despite knowing full well that it was remotely operated by another human, suspend their disbelief and conceive of it as a distinct being with its own personhood.
In her 2011 study of attachment relationships involving people and their digital pets, Alone Together, the sociologist Sherry Turkle proposed that the human race was entering a ‘robotic moment’. The appeal of such gizmos, as well as the immense popularity of various mobile phone games based on the running of an imaginary farm, fuelled by the addictive neurochemical buzz of positive feedback you get from tending to your virtual crops, may indeed bear this out. But the befriending of strangers has very little to do with it; indeed, from the point of view of a reader in 2020, the facilitation of human-to-human contact is arguably one of the least interesting things about where digital technology is heading. The texture of experience conveyed in Little Eyes feels not so much speculative as nostalgic, harking back to the early days of the internet – evoking, in particular, the uncannily intimate voyeurism enabled by such websites as Chatroulette. What seemed at the time like a vision of the future is now just another cultural curio.