The Plus One
If you’ve seen the John Malkovich movie Making Mister Right, you will be familiar with the premise of Sarah Archer’s The Plus One. All about a woman who literally creates her ideal boyfriend from code she’s written, It’s very much a rollicking eighties romcom with a twenty-first century gloss on its lips. Parts of it work very well, but ultimately there’s a reason why people rarely write retellings of Frankenstein in which the creature and its inventor end up in a sexual relationship.
Kelly Suttle is a robotics engineer for AHI who, along with her best friend Priya, has invented the Confibot. The Confibot has AI that’s as close as humanity has ever come to creating a machine that can pass itself off as a human being (thanks to, among other things, using Google as a brain); it’s slowly but surely becoming a high-priority project at work, even though Priya and Kelly have to battle to be taken seriously by most of their colleagues.
Kelly’s personal life is much less exciting. Which becomes a problem, when during a family dinner Kelly learns that her sister is getting married. Facing severe pressure from her mother to finally settle down – the woman is already apoplectic about making her sister’s wedding The Bay Area’s Event of the Season and No Daughter of Hers is going to be seen dateless at it – Kelly goes on dates to try to find her plus-one for the ceremony. But, an antisocial introvert even by her own estimates, the situation soon goes south and she cannot find the right man to escort her, even with the outgoing Priya helping. In desperation, Kelly creates her own Confibot with the personality traits she most desires in a man, and names him Ethan.
Ethan (naturally) soon becomes everything Kelly’s ever wanted in a man – at least after she rubs off some of his rougher edges. Even better, he fully passes as a human being to others, which confirms her invention does what she says it would do and might represent a huge technological advancement for mankind. And most importantly, he pleases her picky mother, who hears wedding bells when she looks at them together. Ethan even does wonders for Kelly’s introverted nature, causing her to become a more outspoken, bolder version of herself and to take breaks and social risks. But as Kelly finds herself opening up to her own creation, the threat that the true nature of her relationship with Ethan might be revealed at any second looms – and might destroy her career in the process.
First things first. As a satire, The Plus One is top-flight funny. As a comedic movie, or a purely comedic novel exploring Silicon Valley, I would be giving it a much higher grade. But I have to judge it as a romance novel, and as a romance it only works sparingly. The ultimate problem with how Kelly falls in love with Ethan is also the issue that has vexed authors from Heinlein to Assimov – how much agency does a robot really have when it falls in love with its creator?
Because here’s the tacky part of this confection; Ethan has no personality or thought process of his own, besides the stuff he pulls down from Google. The parts of him Kelly has fallen in love with are the parts she’s invented for him. Now, the book actually addresses this and uses it to make Kelly’s relationship with her own AI more poignant, but I couldn’t invest in their relationship – not that the book wants me to. And yes, y’all, we get robot boinking, though not too much or too explicitly, which I’m thankful for because of Ethan’s occasionally childlike nature.
The best part of the book, besides Kelly’s character growth, is the friendship between Priya and Kelly, who are more like sisters than Kelly is with her actual sister. I loved how their friendship moves and evolves during the book. Kelly’s relationship with her pushy, hysterical mom also works well, as is her ability to move beyond finally pleasing her to becoming her own person (though at this point I’ve had enough of pushy, wedding-obsessed mom characters).
The book’s only other flaw is that it doesn’t quite get the nature of working in STEM right, breezing over tech knowledge and knowledge of the culture of life in the Bay Area so we can get back to the tension between the lady and her perfect robot man.
The Plus One is fun as a lightweight read with some strong punch; and probably a great read for folks who kink on robot-human relationships. For some the little details and questions won’t matter too much – and they might enjoy the book more than I did.