Book review: ‘Little eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin

(no spoilers)

Something that’s become so clear during this new COVID world is that technology has had such a positive impact on many people’s lives. We’ve got families able to stay in touch over video calls, employees able to keep their jobs because they can work from home, doctor’s visits done remotely, Black Lives Matter marches live-streamed, and people kept informed about issues all over the world – far beyond their own media doorstep and with little filter.

But even though I work in a tech company and am a digital marketer, I continue to be wary of new technology trends. That’s not to say that I am mistrustful of the technology itself – I’m wary of the people in control of it, who are human, flawed and in many cases (Zuckerberg, Musk, I’m looking at you) egotistical.

‘Little eyes’ is an exploration of the relationship between people and technology – a commentary on privacy, intimacy and loneliness. It leaves you unnerved with its striking familiarity. Now with the reality of tech having reached and surpassed the possibilities explored by old-school science fiction, this novel feels profound. Like science-fiction meets psychology; like Philip K. Dick but more insidious, and far more fluffy. 

I have to say, I loved the first sentence of this novel and everything that it nodded towards: “The first thing they did was show their tits.” A bit crass before you’ve read the novel and understood the pretext perhaps, but after knowing what the theme of the book is, this is a clear nod to the porn industry driving forward all new technology. Search algorithms? Porn. 360 video? Porn. Games? Porn. VR? Porn.

And from then on, the world is made clear to us. It’s technologically advanced, but not so much so that it feels out of reach – ten more years, perhaps? Kentucki toys are the new ‘must-have’ tech of the moment, and very reminiscent of Furbies. You can get them in the form of different cute and colorful animals, from rabbits to crows and dragons. They even have working eyes that blink, little animal grunts, feathers and torsos that move, and wheels on the bottom of the toy to allow them to trundle around.

But that’s not all they do. Because inside of each toy is a person. Not a real teeny tiny person, but one who has been randomly paired with it. A person who can control the wheels, make noises and explore their surroundings using the cameras in the eyes – from a connected tablet anywhere in the world. 

Quickly, factions of fans form. You have the ‘keepers’, who are the kinds of people to buy and bring a Kentucki toy home to keep it in their home. And you have the ‘dwellers’, who buy a tablet with a serial code which is then connected through a database to someone’s random Kentucki, through which you then experience the world. As Emilia (and the reader) asks, is there something to be said about the people who choose one or the other? “If people could be divided between Kentucki keepers and dwellers, it disturbed her to be on the opposite side from her son.” 

It’s a fascinating concept, and so spot-on with its understanding about the way the tech could be used for good, for evil and could be monetised further. 

You can’t just bounce around until you find a Kentucki home you like (this is no Omegle), as once you’re connected to a toy, your tablet can only be used for that connection. Lose the connection (either through the battery dying, the toy being destroyed, or you yourself ending the connection) and the tablet is useless. Same with the toy – once the dweller has left, it’s just a shell. 

Two of the most interesting characters are polar opposites: 

Alternate cover for ‘Little eyes’

Marvin, a young man living in Guatemala, who is dwelling in a dragon in Norway. He’s lost his mum, struggling at school, and becomes obsessed with the idea of going into the mountains and touching the snow, figuring that if he could just plow into a snowbank: “You could leave your mark. And that was just like touching the other end of the world with your own fingertips.”

Emilia, an older woman with a grown up son, lives in Peru and dwells in a bunny in Germany. She is cripplingly lonely, as her son isn’t interested in her anymore and she speaks with her friends about their Kentucki’s as though they are their children. She is seduced by her keeper, a young girl who appears to care for her more than anyone ever has – making sure she is charged at night and adjusting her home so that it’s easy for Emilia to get around: “So every day, someone at the other end of the world did all that for her. She smiled and put her phone away. That was some attention.”

Of course as the novel progresses, these innocent connections (and multiple more) become more complicated. Mirroring the behavior we know to exist – trolls doing things they never would to a real person, overstepping boundaries, stalking, emotional-dependency and even paedophilia. We even see how entrepreneurs try to take advantage of the loose laws and monetize it immediately. Kentucki’s can have accessories added for a price, and richer people can buy already activated Kentucki experiences so that they have a choice over where they dwell. 

The idea of the technology is truly the thing that makes ‘Little eyes’ stand out from other novels. However, while it is fascinating to see Schweblin weave multiple different stories into the collection of ‘early adopters’ we see, they do feel disjointed and the novel stops with no real ending to speak of. 

Her language – and I also found this in ‘Mouthful of Birds’ (which I had difficulty finishing) – is inconsistent, going from beautiful poetic prose one moment, “The cries from the crickets came down from the mountains, furious. She could feel how they lodged in her ears.” to clunky and average text like: “This is dumb, thought Emilia, though she had to admit it was kind of fun.” and “The weird girl from her biology class that the club bullied for fun.” While there might have been an attempt to have characters sound different based on their age, I don’t think it translated well. To be fair – it is a book translated from Spanish to English – so there might have been some losses there. 

I’d recommend you give it a read, if only to delight in the horror of where our collective intelligence may take us if technology is unbridled. And to ask yourself whether your curiosity would balance out your need for privacy if Kentucki’s are only a few years away.

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