“‘Snookums […] is a self-activating, problem-seeking computer with input and output sensory and action mechanisms analogous to those of a human being. […] He is as close to being a living creature as anything Man has yet devised.'” 
Unwise Child, Randall Garrett (192pgs); Mayflower Books, USA, UK, 1962.
Michael Raphael Gabriel – ‘Mike, The Angel’ – is a world-famous engineer, directed to work upon a top-secret project known as the William Branchell. This, it turns out, is a gigantic spaceship, the largest ever built on Earth (opposed to in space), harbouring a huge supercomputer. Stranger still, the ship has clearly been built around the cargo hold in which the computer is being stored… Mike is recruited, begrudgingly, as a member of the crew to oversee the safe deliverance of this ship’s mysterious cargo off of Earth to a cold and hostile planet named Eisberg, where a waiting scientific team will take the cargo and keep it there for the foreseeable future.
It doesn’t take long before Mike discovers that the cargo is simply the separate brain to a fully functioning and mobile robot named Snookums, whose ability to problem-solve, research its own chosen topics, and keen interests in humanity and science, have rendered it too dangerous to keep on Earth, and too valuable to dismantle. Mike becomes fascinated with Snookum’s beautiful carer, a psychologist named Leda, but distrusts the strange Snookums, whose child-like innocence betrays a deeper and more deadly side underneath.
When a murder takes place on the Branchell during its voyage, Mike begins to suspect subterfuge – though whether it is man or machine constructed, it is not yet clear…
SO, UNWISE CHILD…
Boy, it took me a while to get round to this entry. And a while to get through this (relatively) short novel too.
Set in the (quite 1960s-esque) future, the novel does not drop us into the Branchell section of the novel until after a lengthier beginning on Earth, where Mike is introduced to us attempting to (covertly) buy rare and out-dated technological parts from a store in New York City. Whilst there, he and the shopkeeper are accosted by a small group of youths, cyberpunks, who attempt to rob the store. Something of a civil war, or violent youth movement at least, is taking place on Earth, in which some young people have joined terrorist factions dedicated to nuclear sciences and violence. The first few chapters of Unwise Child introduce us to the protagonist, Mike, through a couple of close-calls with these groups, who, using his own scientific knowledge, is able to disrupt their attempts on his life. These sections do seem oddly out of place in terms of the actual plot of the novel – especially as the rest of the book is set off-Earth, in deep space, and concerns a murder mystery surrounding a robot – but there is a connection eventually made towards the end (though, I have to admit it wasn’t the strongest connection…).
The actual main crux of the novel, however, Snookums – a robot so powerful, its huge brain must be kept in a hold all of its own, and its child-like curiosity adds to its potentially sinister nature – is a memorable creation. Its voice, modelled on its carer’s, is sweet and high-pitched. It is described as being humanoid in shape, but with caterpillar tracks for mobility . Snookums, it is soon realised, is the secret cargo of the Branchell, a robot designed to problem-solve and conduct its own research; however, the robot soon developed a keen interest in nuclear technology and is now so gifted in the subject it would be a danger to keep it on Earth . Likewise, Snookums has been programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics, making it unable to hurt the humans it is around , and as it believes humans cannot lie, when avoiding to tell Snookums private or harmful information about the mission, they must be careful to word their statements in vague ways, opposed to lying, as this could damage Snookums’ brain.
Snookums remains a constant figure of unease in the novel. Not as sinister as other robots in similar fiction, Snookums is an interesting literary subject due to its having its own agency – for the most part. It is fragile, but incredibly dangerous, accidentally made too intelligent, and all due to its ‘natural’ curiosity. Its introduction immediately makes it a sinister figure. For instance, it steps outside the initial Earth base where it is kept, into the surrounding tundra, and pretends to be a human in distress, coaxing Mike outside into the storm to investigate. When Mike gives up trying to help and clambers back into the safety of the base, he is horrified to realise that it was Snookums, impervious to the cold, who tempted him outside – all to see how Mike would react: a creepy psychological experiment. When Leda, the psychologist who is keeping an eye on Snookums, tells it to apologise, the robot does, though of course this sounds hollow. Ultimately, when the murder sub-plot comes into it, in classic detective fashion, the reader is torn between wondering if Snookums is intentionally deadly, or if there is actually more at play…
Mike as a protagonist is perhaps not the strongest figure (he is very alike a number of mystery fiction lead characters, and is somewhat dated overall) and the crew itself is varied but not given much space or as much to do in comparison to Snookums, who remains the strongest element of the novel. There are moments of hard science fiction – the science of the novel is delved into in some parts and adds a little clarity and imagination to some of the more classically SF plot points (I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Antarctica as “the worst spot on the best planet in the known galaxy”  and the descriptions of Eisberg were also quite engaging). There is humour here too. The novel has a hard-boiled sensibility to it, with a charismatic lead and plenty of intrigue, but also this lightens the novel, which could have easily become bogged down with a sinister robot trope. Snookums, its very name, is humorous too; it makes some of the darker elements of the robot that bit more light but also does a good job in reflecting how easily infantilized the robot is by its carers and creators.
Ultimately, a secondary plot does come into play – the mystery is not as gripping as other works of a similar theme, but there is an interesting element of religion throughout the novel, light at first but growing in intensity until late in the novel. It’s hard to mention too much about this without ruining some of the twists and turns but suffice it to say its not badly placed and brings an interesting dynamic to the already compelling robotic themes.
Overall Unwise Child isn’t perhaps the strongest robot novel – there are many out there which do a better job with very similar themes – but it remains entertaining, and Snookums is a memorable robotic character, with a few twists and turns which seem to fit nicely into the fiction anyway. It is very much a product of its era, evident in the language used and some of the themes at play, and for an SF robot story with a hard-boiled twist it should please plenty of SF fans, regardless.
This cover is hard to find online… There are a couple of other editions in circulation, one of which depicts an artist’s rendition of Snookums, but this one seems more of a rudimentary science fiction cover. It depicts the descent of a craft to a barren-looking planet, what I assume is Eisberg, with a burning sun near the horizon. This could depict the Branchell’s descent, but it seems to be largely just a science fiction-themed cover: classic spaceship imagery. There’s no artist credit on the back of the cover, or inside the novel anywhere, and a quick search online has proven it’s a hard one to credit… Anyone know?
I will note that tagline there… Definitely got me.
Randall Garrett (1927-1987) was a prolific short story writer whose works frequented numerous science fiction magazines and anthologies between the early 1940s and late 1970s. He is well known for his Lord Darcy series, a detective/alt-history series featuring magic in place of science; The Gandalara Cycle series written alongside his wife, Vicki Ann Heydron; and a number of other series and novels, often written alongside writers such as Robert Silverberg and Laurence M. Janifer – occasionally under pseudonyms. Garrett continued writing up until 1979, where after an illness, he spent the last eight years of his life in a coma. Garrett was notorious amongst the SF circles, apparently, with a short internet search revealing his penchant for pranks and womanising, as well conducting some questionable behaviour around his fellow writers, whether offensive or bizarre. There are lots of amazing articles and essays out there that can give you far more information on the life and times of Garrett – I recommend starting here!
Unwise Child is also known by its far more lurid alternate title: Starship Death (oh man, I love it…). There is a 2007 edition of Unwise Child still available for purchase on kindle for under one pound, whilst a paperback edition is still in print – though, hardcover, of course, is pricier and in less stock. Weirdly enough, and this does happen with some older books, the secondhand editions are incredibly expensive! I would also check in at your local bookstores or secondhand bookshops. Compared to other books in this series, this one is still quite easy to get your hands on new.
NEXT UP: THE NEW YEAR?? And with it a new title… See you in January!