Simon Stephenson is joining us today to talk about his novel, Set My Heart to Five. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Set in a 2054 where humans have locked themselves out of the internet and Elon Musk has incinerated the moon, Set My Heart to Five is the hilarious yet profoundly moving story of one android’s emotional awakening.
One day at a screening of a classic movie, Jared notices a strange sensation around his eyes. Bots are not permitted to have feelings, but as the theater lights come on, Jared discovers he is crying.
Soon overwhelmed by powerful emotions, Jared heads west, determined to find others like himself. But a bot with feelings is a dangerous proposition, and Jared’s new life could come to an end before it truly begins. Unless, that is, he can somehow change the world for himself and all of his kind.
Unlike anything you have ever read before, Set My Heart to Five is a love letter to outsiders everywhere. Plus it comes uniquely guaranteed to make its readers weep a minimum of 29mls of tears.*
*Book must be read in controlled laboratory conditions arranged at reader’s own expense. Other terms and conditions may apply to this offer.
What’s Simon’s favorite bit?
We live in an age of snark, where every statement we make must seemingly now be prefaced by a ‘lol’, or swiftly suffixed with an eye-roll emoji. One of the funniest people on twitter, Natalie Walker, has lately even taken to adding ‘Who cares?’ to everything she posts as a pre-empt to the trolls who would otherwise inevitably do so.
No doubt social media has a lot to answer for here. Mark Twain famously once wrote that he didn’t have time to write a short article so he wrote a long one instead; if Twain were alive in 2020, he might well have told us that he did not have enough characters to say something nice, so he said something mean instead, lol. Put another way: it might take less muscles to smile than to frown, but less still to make a ‘Your mom’ joke.
Yet at this point, who can begrudge any of us our weariness? The planet is burning, our political system is in meltdown, a global pandemic is afoot, and the ending of Game of Thrones was not what we any of us had hoped for. Perhaps our special brand of nihilistic ennui – where we talk of a deadly virus in the same sentence as a disappointing television show finale, as if they were of equivalent import – really is the only way to go. Eye-roll emoji.
But it was not always like this. At least. I don’t remember it being so, although I cannot exactly pinpoint when earnestness was outlawed. I think even in the disaffected 1990s of my youth it was still acceptable to be enthusiastic, if only about plaid shirts and Nirvana CDs. But somehow here in 2020, enthusiasm now seems as outdated as the asthenia that characters in Victorian novels used to regularly swoon from.
Which brings me to my own novel, Set My Heart To Five. It is set in the year 2054, and while there are definitely no fainting Victorians, there is also no shortage of enthusiasm. And that enthusiasm might just be my favorite thing about the book.
The narrator of Set My Heart To Five is Jared, a biological android programmed to work as a dentist. The world Jared inhabits is not a dystopia, but something I am calling a misstopia: a world that has gone wrong not due to state-level conspiracy, but humans missing the mark in the same old ways we always do. So, by the 2054 of the novel: humans have locked themselves out of the internet, Elon Musk has incinerated the moon, and North Korea and New Zealand have annihilated each other due to an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Our culture tends to portray androids as harboring murderous intent, but I wanted to go the other way with Jared: what if androids embodied our best qualities? What if they were relentlessly cheerful and optimistic and always saw the best in everything and everyone? Perhaps most importantly: what if the language of snark was as alien to them as Klingon is to us?
Snark is certainly alien to Jared, and even the title ‘Set My Heart To Five’ is a reflection of his wide-eyed innocence. Early in the book, Jared informs us that the operating system he runs on was originally developed for use in domestic appliances. The phrase ‘Set it to five!’, then, is how Jared both expresses maximal enthusiasm and pays homage to the appliance he considers his noble ancestor, the toaster. (The number is five because the toasters I had known and loved all only went up to five; I have since discovered that some toasters go up to six or seven. But – who cares?)
Other points of fulsome pride for Jared include the two main attractions in his town of Yspsilanti, Michigan – a three-pointed bridge and a phallic-water tower – and their perennially-awful android football team, the EMU Eagles. Whereas us humans would now mention such things only ironically, Jared is genuinely thrilled to inform his readers about these everyday delights.
Other things Jared loves unashamedly include: his scientist mother Professor Feng, experiments, the feeling of schadenfraude and – more than anything else – old movies. The Great Crash of 2037 has destroyed all the old movies that were stored digitally, so the decrepit repertory cinemas still in existence primarily show movies that survived because they were stored on film. Thus, they primarily show the movies of the 1980s and 1990s, and specifically the commercial hits of which there were a lot of prints: things like Forrest Gump, Thelma and Louise and The Shawshank Redemption.
Not coincidentally, these were the movies I grew up with. Many of them are big and brash and they are by no means without their flaws, but they all have en earnestness and a heart that often seems absent from today’s multiplex fare. It is that heart that prompts an emotional awakening in Jared.
It is also what continually draws me back to those movies. I enjoyed writing the sections in the book where Jared watches them as much as I have ever enjoyed writing anything. I work mostly as a screenwriter and spend a lot of my life talking about movies. Somehow though – perhaps because of my twin societal and professional obligations to snark – I never talk honestly about how deeply many of these widescreen movies lodged in my soul. They are down there though, and I found being able to write about them in Jared’s voice strangely liberating; perhaps what I was enjoying was the chance to finally say this quietest part out loud.
And Jared’s unashamed enthusiasm then empowered mine, because early on in the writing process – and inspired by how the movies made Jared feel – I set myself my own heartfelt goal: to try and write a near-future novel that had the shape and feel of the kind of movies I have always loved, and that gave the reader the same kind of experience from reading it that Jared gets from his trips to the movies.
So, my earnest and enthusiastic hope is that if you decide to check out Set My Heart To Five, it will provoke some of those same feelings in you, and perhaps ultimately give you the same feeling of satisfaction you get after seeing a good movie.
But of course I will let you decide if I was successful.
I am from Edinburgh in Scotland, but live now in Los Angeles. I have had stop overs along the way in London and San Francisco.
I’m a writer and screenwriter, and once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away I was a physician.
My first book was a memoir called ‘Let Not The Waves Of The Sea’, about the loss of my brother Dominic in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. It won ‘Best First Book’ at the Scottish Book Awards in 2011.
My novel, Set My Heart To Five was released in summer 2020.