Laura Daleo’s The Doll is a soft science fiction story about Jeremy Dillon, who cannot recover from the loss of his wife. Instead, he falls to drinking and seems on the path to losing everything. Then, once again drunk at a bar, he meets someone who tells him of a way he might recover, by visiting the Dollmaker.
The Dollmaker turns out to be a high-tech robotics and artificial intelligence design company, dedicated to creating “dolls”—recreations of lost loved ones—in various versions of complexity. Jeremy, almost despite himself, agrees to purchase their most advanced version. This model appears to follow the model of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. If I may quote Dr. Eldon Tyrell, “‘More human than human’ is our motto.”
And so does “Carly” meet and exceed everyone’s expectations. She is not an exact copy of Jeremy’s wife, Jenna, because, as Jeremy is informed, it wouldn’t be acceptable if his wife appeared to come back from the dead. But she is close enough to raise the eyebrows of Jeremy’s friends.
Things appear to go great. Jeremy and Carly have a whirlwind romance, falling in love with each other without any sex (boo!). This seems reasonable, since Carly was programmed to love Jeremy and Jeremy has had his wife essentially brought back to life.
But you know this can’t last, right? You see, Carly has not been built precisely to spec.
I’ll say no more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. And I don’t want to give anything away because I’m going to recommend this book. Skip to the bottom of this review if you don’t believe me.
I was sad to note a lack of treatment of the themes of artificial intelligence, robots undetectable from humans, and even hints of Dr. Frankenstein’s agony over being responsible for his creation. They are only lightly touched upon, if at all. At one point, two men are arguing about what should be done with Carly, and rather than assert her rights to decide for herself, she simply argues with one and against the other.
There was not much discussion of the ethics of owning a self-aware machine, never mind designing and programming them to want or love another person, by force. And while Carly might be unique in this sense, the question is not addressed: if we can create an intelligence with a robot body that cannot be identified as not human, can we then force it to obey predetermined rules? Should Carly lead a doll rebellion?
The Doll is what I like to call a “Back to the Future” book. Not because the book involves time travel, but because, like the Future’s Marty McFly, who does not change or evolve during the entire movie, the human characters do not come to any great conclusions or change emotionally. This is perfectly fine and not a criticism, because the events of the book don’t really lead to them changing a world-view. A deeper dive into the moral mechanics of AI might have allowed for this, but as I mentioned the book does not really touch on these issues.
Carly is the only character who goes through a change, but I’m not going to tell you how. You’ll have to read the book to find out how and why this particular artificial intelligence becomes more than she was ever intended to be. And that does not include electricity or programming errors. Carly’s expansion is… unique.
The cover of The Doll is great. It may be slightly inaccurate in depicting how a doll is created, but it certainly catches one’s eye.
Overall, The Doll is an enjoyable read. While I found the constant insecurity and misunderstanding between the lovers more high school level than adult, it wasn’t a deal breaker. And here is the most important part: I read The Doll in two sittings, because I had to stop one time, not because I wanted to. To me, this is the final measure of any book.
Did it keep me wanting to read?
The Doll did, and I recommend it.