The field of artificial intelligence, or computer robotics, may not sound like a poignant story line for a novel, particularly one that bends thematically toward the beatings of the heart.
But Scott Hutchins, in "A Working Theory of Love," turns this potentially sterile technological world into an emotionally moving force that helps propel the narrative as it grapples with the stuff of real life.
Set in San Francisco, the book opens with the narrator, Neill Bassett, uncertain about both work and love. A somewhat forlorn 36-year-old divorcee, he grew up in Arkansas but relocated after college years that were marked by the suicide of his father, a physician who kept such detailed journals that he was dubbed the "Samuel Pepys of the South."
With Neill's compliance, the observations and reflections from more than 5,000 pages of those journals are now being hard-wired to the brain pan of a machine that has been named "Dr. Bassett." It is a "grandiose linguistic computer project" concocted by an old wizard in the field of artificial intelligence who is assisted by Neill and a programming prodigy from Indonesia.
As the computer becomes increasingly conversational through text-messaged questions and replies, Neill opens a window to his past and an elusive family history. The father he did not know all that well is re-emerging in Neill's life. At times their text-messaged exchanges become confrontational.
Outside the work at his Menlo Park office, Neill is adrift romantically, but not averse to the one-night-stands of bachelorhood. He is friendly with his ex-wife, Erin, and begins bedding down with a hot number in the robotics business, Jenn. But early on in the book he meets and is smitten with a 20-year-old woman, Rachel, who is trying to put her own life back together.
What ensues for Neill and Rachel is an emotional roller coaster with all the ups and downs of the San Francisco hills. There is sex, love, a videotape, a new-age retreat called Pure Encounters, even a whiff of a potential crime.
San Francisco and its environs are deftly, beautifully depicted and made an essential part of the story. In quick, artful strokes, the various characters in a wide cast are memorably drawn and entwined in Neill's personal saga. Even the would-be intelligent machine, "Dr. Bassett," becomes such a vivid character that questions of its mortality, not just its human dimensions, are raised.
A former Truman Capote fellow at the creative writing program at Stanford University, Hutchins has published shorter work, but "A Working Theory of Love" is his first novel. It is a terrific debut, an intriguing, original take on family and friendship, lust and longing, grief and forgiveness.