Review Details

Review type: Book

Title: Service Model

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Service Model

Reviewed by: Nadya Mercki

Other details: Hardback, £16.99

Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Nadya Mercki

Robot stories are one of the pillars of science fiction, and with the recent developments in ChatGTP and AI-generated images flooding the internet, it is only fair that the theme of artificial intelligence occupies the writers’ minds so much.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Service Model is a humorous and, at the same time, quite a sad story of a robot stubbornly trying to fulfil his purpose in a world that has gone to shambles. It is a very human story, too, even though it is written from the point of view of a robot. A chunk of the conversations is done via communication channels with all the correct designations, addresses and robotic thinking, but the protagonist, Charles, is a human-facing robot, which requires him to be able to understand the intricacies of human expressions and even makes him use them occasionally. The dilemmas he ponders on are not unfamiliar to a real living human being of flesh and blood from the 21st century. And, of course, there is a big mystery of the Protagonist Virus and the idea of a robot changing.

Charles is the latest and most advanced model of a valet robot that serves in a manor. His master is not the most interesting of personalities – he barely socialises these days and does not want to leave the house; he’s got no lady of the house – just a bunch of household robots to do the chores. Still, even under these circumstances, there is enough to fill in Charles’ task list. There are clothes to be laid out daily (even if they are not worn) and travel arrangements to be checked (just in case); there is the House major-domo system to cooperate with and the rest of the staff to supervise. Though Charles (as we are often reminded) cannot feel satisfaction, happiness or frustration – who would program a valet for that?! – this loop of adding and ticking off tasks saves his processors from overloading, and that is quite a satisfactory existence.

But things change when one morning, Charles finds out that his master is dead, his throat cut by Charles’ own hand. With the police robot freezing at the crime scene, Charles has no other way but to report himself to diagnostics. Murdering one’s master is a big smudge on your reputation, but perhaps he could still find employment elsewhere. After all, he is a high-class model – they might be allowed more than one murder before they are put out of service. Thus, Charles’ journey into the world begins.

But things do not look optimistic outside the manor. There seems to be no life in other mansions, and Charles meets other household robots as lost as himself, trying to fulfil their duties but encountering constant errors in logic. In the Diagnostic Centre, the queue of defective robots is huge. On top of that, all the work has stopped due to the lack of directives from Grade Seven or higher humans to resolve a problem. It is there that Charles meets a rather faulty robot, The Wonk, who can only communicate over the voice channel, cannot control her intonations and needs sustenance to charge. The Wonk is very interested in why the world was ruined and the humanity disappeared. She is searching for a mysterious Library that must have the answers. The Wonk entices Charles to join her, for where, if not in the ultimate storage of knowledge, will he find out if there are any humans left for him to serve under.

In the end, the revelation is and is not what you expect it to be – there is, and there is not an individual to blame for the collapse of civilisation. The quest is done and might only begin for the new, changed Uncharles.

I really loved the intellectual humour of Adrian Tchaikovsky. Even though Charles, who turns into Uncharles is a machine to its core, you cannot but empathise with him. He is like us when we find it difficult to let go of our own beliefs and habits when we are scared to lose ourselves because we have no more purpose. It might seem that Charles has his functions preprogrammed, but throughout the story, he is ‘searching’ for his own reason. After all, the creation takes after its creator and is thus fallible to the same errors.

The novel gives you a wonderful perspective on the humanity of today – people who have to work like robots, the bureaucracy that stretches to the robotic world, senseless tasks and missions humans invent for themselves, the lack of “efficiency, rationality, and cleanliness”. It brings to mind many of the other stories about robots and about humans, about exploitation and self-discovery, and about change. Despite the world scale of this apocalypse, there is something cosy about the story, with Charles trying to bring his house-related personal services everywhere he goes.

Service Model feels all-encompassing and truly endearing; it makes you laugh and want to cry in some places. And it is filled with hope, the one that transpires in the least hopeful times. It’s an absolute pleasure to dive in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 + 18 =