It’s hard to believe this madcap story really exists, but here’s the proof — the cover reveal and excerpt from author Andrew Smith’s new novel Rabbit & Robot.
The psychedelic cover design by Mike Perry, who’s known for the animated graphics on Broad City, perfectly captures Smith’s giddy bouillabaisse of the odd, profane, and outrageous.
Smith is best known for Grasshopper Jungle, the story of a boy discovering his bisexuality as the world is destroyed by a plague of giant praying mantises. That novel won the Printz Honor from the American Library Association, and he followed it up with similar topics of budding sexuality and apocalyptic absurdism in The Alex Crow.
While he does realism too, with books like Ghost Medicine, 100 Sideways Miles, Winger and its sequel Stand-Off, Smith is in runaway gonzo mode with Rabbit & Robot, which focuses on… It’s probably easier if he explains it himself:
“Rabbit & Robot is weird and funny, but it’s sad too, set in a disappointing and probable future where kids have two basic choices that will determine their adult roles in society,” Smith says. “The novel tells the story of Cager and his friend Billy, who are stuck — alone with just three other people — onboard the Tennessee, a giant cruise ship orbiting the moon. But Cager and Billy are not entirely alone. There are thousands of robots on the Tennessee who gradually go insane and begin eating each other, so they’re like zombie robots — but they’re not called zombies, and they’re not called robots either. You’ll see. And while all this is going on, down on Earth humanity is involved in 30 or so simultaneous wars, leaving the marooned Cager and Billy helpless spectators who can only watch the planet fizzle away below them, wondering if they are the last remaining humans in the universe, trying to figure out what it really means to be human in the first place.”
“Rabbit” is a slang word for soldier, and “Robot” refers to computer programmers, who tend to the world’s menagerie of realistic mechanical human and animal “cogs.”
We haven’t even gotten to the two girls who have also stowed away on the spaceship Tennessee. Or the robot valet, Parker, who assists the two boys but is built in such realistic fashion as a teenage boy himself that he is going haywire with horniness.
Then there’s the mechanical giraffe Maurice. Who speaks. With a French accent. And he’s a Neil Young fan. “That’s when the book gets sad,” Smith says. “Near the very end, when Maurice sings to them.”
Smith said this bizarre tale was inspired by bizarre reality. “I’ve been a teacher for over 25 years, and I’ve seen this happening to kids in public schools,” he says. “They’re given these pathways to their future, and they’re getting narrower and narrower. Kids aren’t being made aware that there are a lot more options for their lives than the school system is making them aware of.”
The horde of cannibalistic robots is inspired by real life, too. “A couple of years ago I found myself feeling like I was trapped in a spaceship with a bunch of screaming, crazy robots that were eating each other. But it wasn’t a spaceship at all. It was just social media,” Smith says.
Just a heads up: The excerpt is full of profanity, which will probably scandalize adults while delighting teen YA readers, who either know all those words already or are hopelessly uncool. “I fancy myself a poet of the blaspheme,” Smith said.
The excerpt begins with our two human heroes already trapped aboard the good ship Tennessee…
Rabbit & Robot is available for pre-orders now and hits bookstores on Sept. 25.
Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright
“Is that a fucking tiger?” Billy Hinman asked.
“I think it is a fucking tiger,” I said.
I’ll admit that I had never seen a fucking tiger before.
It was certainly a day for checking things off Cager Messer’s infinite list of things he’s never done.
“An actual fucking tiger,” Billy whispered.
Even when you’re a half mile away from a tiger and you’re standing naked and chest deep in the middle of a lukewarm fake lake, it is an atavistic human instinct to make as little noise as possible.
“I think the Zoo of Tennessee must have broke,” I theorized.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” Billy said.
“I have no plan.”
“Cager? Do you know what that is?” Parker hollered.
Parker had been hiding up in the branches of a fake pine tree. It could have been a cedar. I don’t know anything about trees. He’d been watching me and Billy swim.
Since I didn’t want to draw the tiger’s attention to us, I decided to think about things for a while.
So Billy offered, “You should tell Parker it’s a tiger, and tigers are friendly, and that he should climb down from the tree and give the tiger a hug because tigers love to be hugged by horny teenagers. That way, while the tiger is distracted by clawing the fucker to pieces, we can make a run for it.”
“But what about our clothes?”
Our clothes were scattered on the shore beneath the tree where Parker was hiding.
“Cager. It’s a fucking tiger,” Billy told me.
For some reason, ever since I’d been forced off Woz, my best friend, Billy Hinman, did make a lot of sense at times.
“I can’t tell Parker that,” I whispered.
“Why not? He’s a fucking machine.”
“I know that. I just can’t, is all,” I said. And, yes, I felt stupid and embarrassed for as much as confessing to Billy Hinman that I had some measured feeling of empathy—or maybe even friendship—for Parker, who was, after all, just a fucking machine.
So I continued, “Besides, the tiger is just a machine too, right? It’s a cog. It won’t do anything to us.”
“What do you mean by us?” Billy said.
Damn all this clarity.
“Well, he’s not supposed to do anything to us.”
“You mean you.”
“Are you daring me to get out of the water and tell the tiger to go away?” I asked.
“Not at all. You should make Parker do it,” Billy said. “You said it yourself, Cager: The tiger’s just another cog. And cogs don’t eat cogs, right?”
That was becoming increasingly debatable on the Tennessee.
The Tennessee had been going to shit, and neither of us had any idea how to stop it from spiraling completely out of control. Worse yet, Billy and I were alone; we were stuck here.
Parker, who was my personal attendant on the Tennessee, called out, “Can you hear me, Cager? What is that thing with stripes and orange hair? Do you know? Will he be kind to me?”
I waded in a little closer to shore, but only about three steps. Then I backed up one. I tried to make my voice as normal sounding and calm as possible. There was no need for me to shout at Parker, because the guy did have pretty good hearing.
“How did you get up in the tree?” I asked him.
But Parker had to yell for me to hear him clearly, which certainly agitated the tiger, who clawed at and chewed on the pants I’d dropped beside the lake. “I floated up here, two days ago when the gravity turned off. The thing with the stripes who is eating your pants right now has been walking around here in Alberta ever since.”
When the Tennessee’s gravity failed, all the animal cogs must have gotten out of the zoo.
A zoo without gravity can easily become a battlefield for clashing survival instincts.
The tiger chewed and chewed.
“Tell him to stop eating my fucking pants,” I said.
I was mad!
And Parker, being the rigidly programmed horny but obedient valet cog that he was, said, “You! Thing! Stop eating Cager Messer’s fucking pants!”
And the tiger, being the rigidly programmed large predatory cat cog that he was, snorted and growled, shook my pants wildly in his teeth, and ripped them to shreds.
“Bad idea,” Billy whispered.
“Fine. Now I don’t have any pants. Stupid fucking tiger.”
“Tigers are dicks,” Billy said.
“I think I should wait up here in the tree for a few more days, Cager,” Parker said.
“It’s only a tiger, Parker.” But I wondered when—if ever—in the history of humankind, anyone had ever said It’s only a tiger. “But he’s a cog. He won’t do anything to us. Watch. I’ll show you so you can climb down from the tree.”
Then I cupped my hands around my mouth, forming a megaphone with my fingers, and said this: “Attention, tiger! You need to go back to the zoo immediately! My name is Cager Messer, and my father owns this ship! Do you hear me? I am Anton Messer’s son, Cager, and I am telling you to return to the zoo!”
And that was when the tiger ate Billy Hinman’s pants too.
No animals, not even fake ones, like being in zoos.
Billy Hinman said, “Plan B: Cager and Billy stay naked in the lake for the next five days, waiting for a fucking tiger to die of boredom.”
What could I say? I never had a Plan A to begin with.
Fortunately for us, we did not have to wait five days in the lake. Something else, which was enormously tall, judging by the rattling and swaying of the fake cedars or pines—or whatever—that didn’t grow or photosynthesize on the recreation deck called Alberta, came crashing toward the lake through the woods.
It was another refugee from the Tennessee’s compromised zoo: a giraffe. We first spotted the thing’s head coming out of the canopy of green needles, its head nearly as high as the tree branch where Parker had perched himself.
And Parker yelled, “Cager?”
What did he want? I refused to be my horny cog’s fucking safari guide.
“Giraffes are nice, right?” I whispered to Billy.
Billy nodded. “And they’re bisexual.”
“They really are,” Billy said. “Totally bisexual. They’re, like, my spirit animal.”
“How do you know that?”
Billy shrugged. “I just do.”
The giraffe stopped at the edge of the woods on the opposite side of the trail from where the tiger continued thrashing Billy Hinman’s pants. The giraffe looked directly at Billy and me. He cocked his head slightly, as though waiting for one of us to say hello or something.
Also, I may as well admit this: I had never seen a giraffe before. It was very tall. And I was terrified of it too.
“Would you boys like to climb up onto my back, so I can carry you out from the lake?” the giraffe said.
He had a French accent.
“That giraffe is from France,” Billy said.
“Why the fuck would your dad make a French giraffe that talks?”
“I think the more important issue is why he would make a fucking tiger that eats pants,” Billy said.
The tiger thrashed and thrashed.
“Bonjour, les jeunes garçons! My name is Maurice,” the giraffe said. And if giraffes could smile, Maurice was smiling at us. “But, please, let me offer you boys a ride on my back. The Alpine Tea House serves magnificent waffles. It’s just over there, at the bottom of the hiking trail. Are you hungry? J’ai très faim. Heh heh . . . I am, as you say, very hungry.”
Cogs were not supposed to get hungry. Ever. Something had been twisting out of whack on the Tennessee.
“He seems really nice, and I love waffles,” Billy said.
“Billy, I am naked. There’s no fucking way I’m riding naked on a bisexual talking giraffe to go get waffles with you,” I argued.
And Billy countered, “Cager, like you said: It’s an opportunity for you to do one of those things you may never get a chance to try doing ever again. Who’s ever gotten to ride naked on a giraffe to go get some breakfast?”
As it turned out, Billy Hinman and I did not need to carry our argument to any definite conclusion. Maurice, being the hungry French giraffe that he claimed to be, became fascinated by the tiger, who finished eating Billy’s pants and had moved on to his next course, which was my T-shirt.
Maurice looked at Billy and me, then apologetically said, “Excuse me. Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît.”
Maurice spread his front legs wide and stiffly lowered his head toward the oblivious tiger, who was apparently an expert at sorting laundry and had moved on to Billy’s T-shirt and socks.
Maurice cocked his head back and in one powerful thrust stabbed his pointy giraffe face directly through the tiger’s midsection.
Maurice made a sound like Mmmph mmmph mmmph! as he wriggled his face deeper inside the tiger’s body, gulping and slurping the internal components of the cat’s mechanization.
Billy Hinman said, “Okay. I take back the thing about him being my spirit animal.”
And the tiger, who had no discernible European accent, said, “Ow! That fucking hurts! This is all there is to life, isn’t it? Sadness and pain.”
The tiger wept and sobbed as great gushing blobs of viscous, semenlike hydraulic fluid burped from the gaping holes Maurice pierced in his torso.
Maurice ate and ate as the tiger cried and cried.
Maurice burbled, “Cette viande de tigre est délicieux!”
Four or five days in the lake was starting to look like a pretty good idea.
Parker shouted, “Cager, what do you suggest I do now?”
“Tell him to ride the giraffe,” Billy whispered.
And the tiger wailed, “Sartre was right—I cannot escape anguish, because I am anguish!”
Mmmph mmmph mmmph! went Maurice.