Jules and Rom: Navigating AI Relations Through Theater
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s Note: We received Jules and Rom as an ebook for free in exchange for an honest review.
As it's evolved, artificial intelligence has raised opportunities for progress as well as anxieties about the future. From employment to social relationships, we spend time thinking about how the world will shift and how artificial intelligence will factor into the fabric of our lives. Jules and Rom by Pete Mullineaux tries to tackle this question through the lens of a high school play by Shakespeare.
To summarize, Jules and Rom takes place in the year 2040 at a premier high school. Each student is assigned learning buddies, android companions meant to help tutor and guide their students through their academic lives. The story mostly centers around a newly hired drama teacher put in charge of putting on a presentation of the classic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet. The story focuses on how the play comes to form, with other side plots involving artificial intelligence for military purposes and the mysterious death of one of the teachers at the school.
You do not necessarily need to have read or watched Romeo and Juliet to be able to enjoy the book. I personally never had the opportunity to read it in school, though I did know the basic plot through picking details up over time. There were a couple details or scenes where I wished that I read the play first, but I still felt as if I got the main themes of the book.
Where I think the book shines the most is the main plotline, in which the audience is invited to explore artificial intelligence-human relations by way of preparing for the play. In the story, the school authorities had turned down the empathy settings of the learning buddies at some point, causing the students rebel and distance themselves from using the learning buddies. The process at which the students warm up to putting on the production and grow as actors and creative entities is very cool to see. In that same vein, the process of putting on this show eventually delves into the emotional relationships between students and androids as androids also step in as actors. The whole storyline is thoughtfully done, and it is certainly the strongest part of the book. I found myself actually invested in how this play was going to turn out. Each character is varied, and the author takes the time to flesh out its main cast well. I also liked some of the details that the author includes in regard to world-building. For instance, I personally liked the detail that the android teachers were made to emulate landmark humans in their respective fields, such as Oscar Wilde as an English teacher or Frida Kahlo for art.
Where Jules and Rom suffers the most is probably its other subplots. The story has a couple other plot lines, including artificial intelligence and military applications as well as a mysterious death that occurs at the school. While they were both interesting to follow, the latter plot line ends up accidentally proving to be more distracting from than dovetailing with the central plot. I wished that those aspects were pared down, because I found myself wanting to switch back to the high school drama plotline whenever we switched perspectives. Another smaller aspect I would want to critique would likely be its view of nostalgia in the book. While neither the author or I can know until 2040 how nostalgia will actually take shape, I had a really hard time believing that the 60s and 70s would be the central decades of nostalgia for teachers and students in 2040. Given that the 2000s-2010s were punctuated by the 1980s with the rise of genres such as outrun and vaporwave and the popularity of works such as Stranger Things or It (not to mention we're already getting nineties and 2000s nostalgia media through shows like Pen15 and music such as Charli XCX’s “1999”), I would likely guess that nostalgia would have progressed through the decades instead of regressed (or at least kept to the 80s—00s). This wouldn’t have bothered me that much, but every time I got a Janis Joplin or a mods vs. rockers reference for instance, it caused me to take pause, distracting myself from the main plot. I would have guessed that what is modern today (2020s) would have been the nostalgia of the future for 2040.
In all, Jules and Rom is an exceedingly interesting piece of science fiction that deftly navigates empathy and artificial intelligence in a novel way. Despite my qualms with some of the subplot lines and my differing views on future nostalgia, this book manages to suck you into its thoughtfully crafted world. If the summary sounds interesting to you, or you have been thinking about the emotional side of our relationship with artificial intelligence, I recommend checking this book out.
Jules and Rom by Pete Mullineaux
Publisher: Troubador Books UK
Photo Source: Amazon
If you are interested in reading Jules and Rom, you can find it on Amazon in Kindle form. You can find it here. The paperback version is slated to come out in Spring 2021.