Cog (2019), a nominee for the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction, is the story of a robot who was built to learn. Mentally and, by all appearances, the titular character (Cog) is a 12-year-old boy whose function is to be a learning artificial intelligence. When he discovers that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, he resolves to make lots of mistakes — a decision which kicks off the narrative arc of the story.
Cog has an underdog main character, key themes of friendship and found family, and a quick pace. These middle grade/young adult mainstay themes make the more experimental parts of the narrative stand out, but not in a good way. The first plot point that gave me pause occurred early in the story, when Cog was taken to a grocery store for the first time and he has what is essentially an anxiety or panic attack. As he assesses the situation and his reaction, he calms himself down and expresses his discomfort with the situation to his adult parental figure and creator, Gina. Even though Cog communicates his feelings to Gina, she not only ignores his discomfort, but also sets him on a difficult task and then treats him coldly when he returns and until they leave the grocery store. This interaction told me as a reader that we have a main character who is coded as neurodivergent with a parental figure who dismisses him. This introduction to the world and its characters made me wonder how the author was going to engage with these complex themes with sensitivity in the book, and I was disappointed to find that Greg Van Eekhout does not do so.
Cog’s parental figure is not even the only adult who dismisses his feelings. Later in the story, another engineer with power over him directly and repeatedly dismisses his feelings and fears, especially concerning his physical body. Highlight the following text to view spoilers: This character is later revealed to be the villain of the story, but I found that enough effort was not made to distinguish between how this adult and Gina treat Cog’s autonomy, feelings, and fears. These choices muddied the narrative for me and made Cog’s late-story reunion with Gina ring rather hollow because she is shown as being only very marginally better than the villain of the story. This brings me to my next issue with the story, specifically around the bodily autonomy of the child protagonist and how it is treated in the book.
A recurring device I was surprised to see in a book that lands on both middle grade and YA shelves was body horror. As the main character (and many of the characters in the book) are robots, there is an argument to be made that what happens to them cannot be called body horror because they are not flesh-and-blood beings. However, given that this is a book for children and young people, the robot characters are extremely empathetic and, by and large, act like regular human beings. So, when a character’s fingernails are described in detail as being ‘lifted so that the character can be plugged in for diagnostics’, it’s uncomfortable to read. Unfortunately, it only gets worse as things happen to characters against their wills (like, for instance, having their skulls opened to remove their brains) and their bodily autonomy is violated. Like real children, the robot children in Cog have very little recourse for asserting their body autonomy against their caregivers, and this makes Cog seem like a bizarre horror story aimed at children. It’s a stark, uncomfortable reality being reflected, and it made me wonder how the author would meaningfully communicate to young readers that their bodily autonomy matters, and if someone were to cross a line, they would be in the wrong. The answer was that Van Eekhout didn’t. Neither the body horror nor the control over Cog’s body were confronted: consent is a critical subject for the intended audience, and though this book approaches it from multiple angles, it never adequately treats it with the clarity and gravity it deserves.
There was another crucial aspect that never saw any real development: specifically, Cog is depicted as having panic attacks and generally being an anxious kid. There are multiple scenes in the story where he feels he must act quickly and decisively but is unable to do so because he is afraid. This fear not only affects him in life-or-death situations, like when attack drones are chasing Cog and his friends, but also in the earlier scene at the grocery store. Through the narrative, Cog is depicted as being overwhelmed by certain stimuli and feeling intense trepidation when he thinks someone else is counting on him: in short, he is depicted as having an anxiety disorder. In moments where he has a panic attack and someone else jumps in to take control of the situation, Cog comes away with a kind of ‘friendship-is-magic’ lesson and no one ever checks in on him or acknowledges that he was in distress. While having friends that can help ease stressful situations is a good thing, the takeaway side-steps the core issue here: the main character is coded as having untreated anxiety and no one is talking about it or supporting him through something that can be terrifying to live with on your own.
Very early in the story, I thought that it was going to be revealed that Cog is not actually a robot but a young boy with autism expressing himself through a make-believe that protects him from the world by supposing that he is a near-invincible robot. Because the book is told from a first-person perspective, my experience of Cog was as character who is coded as a normal kid who is autistic. It’s the body horror that made it clear that he is, in fact, a robot. To be blunt, I don’t think the world needs another depiction of autism as if it’s the way robots work and not the lived reality of actual human beings. This cliché narrative around autistic people being robotic is only worsened by depictions like this one, showing a machine, rather than a child, with thought processes and confusions and feelings that align with how many autistic people think and feel.
As expected from a book that lands on the middle grade shelf, Cog has a happy ending: unfortunately, I don’t think it stuck the landing. As I’ve alluded to, the end of the story does little to assuage any of my problems with the story, and it honestly left me more incredulous than satisfied. Highlight the following texts to view spoilers: Though Cog ends up being able to live with Gina once more, and she did treat him better than the villain, she still put him through emotional stress that is never addressed constructively or apologized for by the end of the story. Also, though the sinister company that wanted to destroy Cog has faced a setback, the text explicitly states that not only does the company still exists but the villain of the story has started a new, worse company founded on his warped ideals. Essentially, he’s been unleashed from an evil corporation that held him back from being even more evil. The little solace we do get is that the main characters are living a quiet life in the middle of nowhere — however, this allows their knowledge of the evil corporations and their work in freeing the world from their machinations to go to waste. I had been holding out hope that some important conversation would happen between Gina and Cog, but no such conversation happens, leaving those troubling threads and themes to stand on their own.
In the end, I can’t recommend this book. It has elements that are really lovely — the found family aspect had a good arc, and the technological aspect goes to some interesting places, especially towards the end. For me, all of that was overshadowed by the important and sometimes fraught conversations that were left hanging, or worse, never commented upon at all. Cog’s narrative arc and tidy ending leave much to be desired.