Book Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

OUT NOW! Thank you to Riverhead and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.

48635845♥♥♥♥ (4 stars)

I adore Schweblin’s work. Fever Dream blew me away when I read it a few years ago, so imagine my excitement when I was approved for an ARC of Little Eyes. This book was not what I was expecting, and I struggled to focus for a lot of it (that could very well be due to living during a global pandemic, however), but in the end I came to appreciate the quiet points made in Little Eyes. It’s a slow but fascinating look at the overlap of technology and the human desire for connection

Little Eyes has a speculative-lite premise, focusing on several narratives as the world gets caught up in the latest tech craze: Kentukis. Kentukis are small robotic stuffed animals that can be bought and kept in the home like a pet. The catch is that the robots are independently and anonymously operated by strangers who buy codes/connections to “dwell” in the Kentukis (via tablet, phone, or computer) and thus, in other people’s homes. You are either a “dweller”, someone who buys a connection to be paired with a Kentuki and remotely control a robot somewhere else in the world, or a “keeper”, someone who buys the little robot and keeps it as a pet. The narratives focus on both “dwellers” and “keepers,” and, not to give too big of a spoiler, it doesn’t go too well for either set.

Schweblin is making some very interesting observations, one of which is surely about human loneliness and humanity as it collides with modern technology. Little Eyes reveals the commonness of being alone and the sadness of seeking connection. Inevitably, one side of the Kentuki connection lets the other down in one way or another. Sometimes it’s brutal, sometimes it’s mundane. As more and more people buy Kentukis or connections, predictable events unfold: pedophiles “dwelling” in the Kentukis of children becomes an issue, people are blackmailed, people’s lives are saved, people start to connect through email and phone instead of just Kentuki, people begin to identify with the Kentuki they “dwell” in (rather than their own bodies), Kentuki “dwellers” are witnesses to crimes they can’t report, “keepers” are cruel to their Kentukis, traumatizing the “dwellers” watching, etc. It becomes very messy, and as I mentioned, no one comes out any better.

Something I really appreciated from Schweblin was this mundanity. Granted, the book felt very slow, and I was annoyed by the lack of plot for a while. But eventually it does start to click with readers. One of Schweblin’s characters, near the end of the novel, wonders why the Kentukis weren’t used to affect change in the world. Why had no one weaponized them to destroy a failing system? Why hadn’t anyone used a Kentuki to steal important financial information and bring the markets down, or strap a bomb to one and blow up an important location? The Kentukis are given access to so much information in “keepers” homes that it could be possible, maybe. Instead, people do find their lives changing in small and sometimes impactful ways, but those changes are incredible personal.

Being the luddite that I am, I couldn’t help but read into the pointlessness of a Kentuki: something that costs hundreds of dollars, is a fad around the world, and not only brings no real good to those who buy, them but seems to actually bring active pain. Throughout the narratives followed in the novel, characters hear over and over again how someone knows someone whose life was absolutely transformed for the better because of their Kentuki. The character buys one, is happy for a time, and then things go south. It makes me think about all the other invasive techno-social elements we have allowed into our lives with little to no thought. Capitalism has trained us to think having the shiniest newest thing will bring us happiness, privacy or dignity be damned.

I could really get on my soapbox concerning invasive technologies in the home. You will never see me with networked smart appliances that have cameras or speakers other than my smartphone. They can get everything they want from me just from my phone (I understand this), but I’d rather not compound the problem. A Kentuki seems like a “because we can” kind of invention, and therefore unnecessary in my mind. It’s disruptive and innovative in the way that many things are now…wasteful and pointless.

I enjoyed following the narrative of a young man, Grigor, who decides to start an underground reselling operation where he takes advantage of the Kentuki boom to buy connections, discern details about what kind of environment they are “dwelling” in, and sell them to people looking for a specific kind of experience. In the legitimate market, buying Kentuki connections is random. You have no control over what environment you get. Grigor identifies a need and brilliantly fills it. His story is a great example of how people need to hustle and work in the shadows to survive in this kind of economy. And ultimately his business plan becomes painfully personal.

Something else Little Eyes prompted me to think about was human desire to see how others live. Is this kind of setup, with “keepers” and “dwellers”, the ultimate extension of reality television and social media? Jenny Cam on steroids? Why do we desire to be voyeurs when we could be tending to our own garden, so to speak? It’s a strange sort of gluttony.

In the end, I would consider Little Eyes a quite character driven novel that creeps up on you. It sits in your brain and makes you consider things you might not have before. Many of those things are very small and personal. Little Eyes is not what I was expecting from Schweblin, but it still contains her beautiful writing and thoughtful character work, and that alone is a treat.

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