Welcome back! Let’s keep the reading train rolling with another book written by Greg Van Eekhout. Van Eekhout has quickly become my son’s favorite writer; we’ve plowed through the 4 books he’s published so far and we’ve already pre-ordered the 5th, Weird Kid (to be released this summer).
Today’s recommendation is Cog, a story of five runaway robots on an epic adventure. At the center of the story is Cog, a biomaton – a sophisticated robot that looks like an average 12-year-old boy. If you were to speak with him, you might guess that there’s something different about him, even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.
Cog is a nickname, derived from the term cognitive development. Cog is a machine that was built to learn. His sole directive is to learn all he can. His caretaker and the person tasked with his learning is Gina, a scientist working for a corporation called uniMIND (nothing creepy about that name, is there?) It is her responsibility to train Cog in the ways of being a human. As such, they live together in a home and she cares for him as a mother would, in many ways.
Gina prepares biofuel for Cog (I was actually surprised that he requires actual human food for sustenance). She reads him bedtime stories and in the first chapter, she takes him to the supermarket to learn the skill of shopping. Cog becomes overwhelmed a times as he tries to navigate the enormous store, particularly when he tries to select cheese. As he stands before the cheese section, he begins to feel a strange sensation. We would likely call it sensory overload but Cog refers to it as ‘cheesing’.
He ultimately determines that without a more specific request, he must load the cart with every kind of cheese available. Upon returning each package to its rightful bin or hook, Gina decides that Cog has had enough training for the day. She explains that he has been created to learn from his mistakes. In doing so, he will improve his ability to exercise good judgment. According to Gina, good judgment comes from experience and sometimes, experience comes from bad judgment.
As he lies in bed that night, he thinks about Gina’s words. He decides that tomorrow, he’s going to speed up his acquisition of experience by making some big mistakes! After making this decision, it doesn’t take long for the story to gain steam, something my 9 year appreciates in a book! By the next page, Cog is already launching head first into his mission of mistake making.
When morning comes, rather than meeting Gina in the lab for more lessons, he walks straight out the front door. He is not supposed to leave home alone; already, Cog feels pleased that this simple action is increasing his cognitive development! He then realizes that he should have brought a jacket to protect him against the chill in the air. He’s pleased to gain the experience of feeling regret. So many important lessons being learned already!
He soon comes across a tiny dog, standing in the road. He also sees a large truck, barreling toward the dog. He has enough time to calculate the probability of the tiny dog surviving the collision before driving in front of the truck. Unfortunately, he did not have enough time to calculate for the damage he would sustain. He is able to make his way home and later wakes up in his bedroom. Only, things are… different. It’s as though the room has been created to look like his own but Cog can see minor inconsistencies that tell him it is not so. He feels a bit loose in some places, a bit tight in others. He falls face-first into his dresser, having lost the ability to maintain balance.
The door opens and instead of Gina, it’s a housekeeping robot called Trashbot. He wonders if Cog has any waste to dispose of. Cog is slightly confused until an unknown man comes forward. His name is Nathan and he works for uniMIND. Cog is now in the uniMIND headquarters, where he was created. Cog asks when he’ll be going home, to which Nathan answers that he is home. He will remain at headquarters from now on.
Over the next few days, engineers make repairs to Cog. He is shown around the facility by Nathan, who is eager to show him the technology uniMIND is working on. He demonstrates how by pressing a button, he can make mice do as he commands. He then explains to a confused Cog that uniMIND isn’t just the name of the company, it’s the entire technology. The team is working towards control not just over the minds of mice but of other creatures, as well, dogs, monkeys, dolphins… humans. Nathan explains that not just anyone is allowed to have this information but Cog is special. Cog does not understand what that means but Nathan assures him that he will, in time.
Cog asks when he will see Gina but she is apparently no longer employed by uniMIND. Nathan explains that this is heartbreaking for Gina but that it’s what’s best for Cog’s well-being. It’s clear to the reader that Gina has been fired for allowing Cog to be harmed while in her care. But Cog does not understand this. What he understands is that Gina is heartbroken. And if this is true, then she will return home. That is where he will find her.
He doesn’t sleep well that night. He remembers that at home, when he couldn’t sleep, he would bring Gina hot cocoa and they would talk. He remembers one night that he found her looking at her computer screen with teary eyes. On the screen is a girl that looks very much like Cog, the same eyes, nose, skin tone and hair color. The screen also shows 3 letters: ADA. When Cog asks about the girl, and Gina tells him through tears that she is his sister. At least, that is how Gina thinks of them because she designed and created them both. Cog asks where she is but Gina simply answers that she lost her… and she’s not going to lose Cog, too.
I think this is good place to stop this recap, as we’re only at page 32 at this point! Suffice to say that Cog determines that he should no longer remain at uniMIND, much to Nathan’s disappointment. He finds his sister within the compound and with the help of three unlikely fellow robot friends, the five of them are off on an adventure to find Gina. Little do they know the lengths uniMIND will go to in order to bring them all back ‘home’.
Cog is an adventure filled journey of the heart and mind. The robotic protagonists are much more than they appear to be at first read. You really find yourself rooting for them every step of the way. I recommend this book as an independent read for 10-12 years or a bedtime story for 8 and 9 year olds. Some of the action may be a little scary for some listeners/readers so you might consider skimming the content if you have any concerns. But in our house, I can assure that Cog is an absolute winner. Happy reading, everyone!