Clara Gutierrez is a highly-skilled technician specializing in the popular ‘Raise’ AI companions. Her childhood in a migrant worker family has left her uncomfortable with lingering in any one place, so she sticks around just long enough to replenish her funds before she moves on, her only constant companion Joanie, a fierce, energetic Raise hummingbird.
Sal is a fully autonomous robot, the creation of which was declared illegal ages earlier due to ethical concerns. She is older than the law, however, at best out of place in society and at worst hated. Her old master is long dead, but she continues to run the tea shop her master had owned, lost in memories of the past, slowly breaking down, and aiming to fulfill her master’s dream for the shop.
When Clara stops by Sal’s shop for lunch, she doesn’t expect to find a real robot there, let alone one who might need her help. But as they begin to spend time together and learn more about each other, they both start to wrestle with the concept of moving on…
I really, really liked this novella. Despite its short length, The Cybernetic Tea Shop packs in a lot of story. Katz engaged in just enough world building so that I was able to get a feel for the world that Clara and Sal live in, without bogging it down with unnecessary info. Interestingly, the author does it using a combination of Sal’s memories, Clara’s occupation, and Sal’s interactions with a few customers. This made for a smooth flow of information that was both insightful and entertaining. I especially enjoyed the lesson on sentient versus sapient – enough so that once I finished the book, I Googled the terms to make sure I understood them correctly. And I did, so kudos to the author for the presentation of terms that can easily be confused and misused.
Clara is, for lack of a better term, a Raise repair woman. What makes this interesting is that Raise stands for Robotic Artificially Intelligent Synthetic Entity, which are mechanical personal assistants with AI programming. Clara’s own Raise is a mechanical hummingbird that she’s tweaked the programming on in order to give Joanie even more of a personality than she would otherwise have. Raises are not referred to as robots because that term is reserved for human-shaped machines that were developed with a will of their own. In my mind, I saw them as being like Data with the feelings chip in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is actually a poor comparison when considering the sentient versus sapient terminology, but it was the best frame of reference I had. Why, you may ask, does this matter? Because Sal is a robot. A robot that has been in existence for almost 300 years. A robot whose story is quite heartbreaking in places because even though she is a machine, and despite the laws in place, she still experiences the same feelings a human does. And while she has certainly experienced loss during her existence, it is her awareness that her time is coming to an end and that she’s worried she won’t last long enough to achieve her former owner’s dream of the tea shop being opened for 300 years, that made me feel for her. Fortunately for Sal, Clara’s nomadic tendencies lead her to Seattle and, after dropping into the tea shop for lunch, Clara decides to strike up a friendship with Sal because she is fascinated by the robot, both technologically and as a person – because that’s how Clara sees Sal, as a person.
There was so much I liked about this book that I don’t really know how to explain it. To begin with, I found the author’s writing style to be easy to read and very enjoyable. Katz has created believable characters in Clara, Sal, and Joanie, and presents the more advanced information in an easy to understand way without dumbing it down. I found the science and AI aspects of the book fascinating. I also enjoyed the relationship that forms between Clara and Sal. I should note that while this is categorized as a lesbian romance, I got the feeling that Clara was actually asexual. So even though she may be attracted to women, Clara isn’t looking for a sexual relationship, and prefers to enjoy the companionship that her friendship with Sal provides. So if you’re looking for a kinky sex-bot story, keep on going. However, if you’re looking for a tale of meaningful companionship that has an interesting sci-fi twist to it, then you might want to check out The Cybernetic Tea Shop. As for me, I’ll be checking out more of Katz’s work as I really enjoyed her writing and storytelling ability.