Blurb & Info
Clara Gutierrez is an AI repair technician and a wanderer. Her childhood with her migrant worker family has left her uncomfortable with lingering for too long, so she moves from place to place across retro-futuristic America.
Sal is a fully autonomous robot. Older than the law declaring her kind illegal due to ethical concerns, she is at best out of place in society and at worst vilified. She continues to run the tea shop previously owned by her long-dead master, lost in memories of the past, struggling to fulfill her master’s dream for the shop while slowly breaking down.
They meet by chance, but as they begin to spend time together, they both start to wrestle with the concept of moving on…
A F/F retro-future sci-fi asexual romance. A story about artificial intelligence and real kindness, about love, and the feeling of watching steam rising softly from a teacup on a bright and quiet morning.
Latest Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Publisher: Soft Cryptid
This is one of the few novellas I’ve encountered that I feel works really, really well as a novella. My usual complaint is that I wish I had an entire novel to really flesh out the story’s premise, but The Cybernetic Tea Shop manages to arrange its entire plot quite neatly into a small space.
Sal is definitely one of the most human-like robots I’ve encountered in fiction, at least in terms of emotional capacity and intelligence. She isn’t naïve about human feelings or thought processes, and she has already had hundreds of years to develop a complete and unique personality. There are a lot of story plots about a human or human-like being having to teach an “unfeeling” robot how to love (I’m thinking of Pixar’s 2008 movie, WALL-E), but Sal doesn’t need that from a romantic partner.
Both Sal and Clara are emotionally mature adults, which is something I did not think I would find myself saying in a review, but here we are. They respect each other’s boundaries, which is something that I really enjoyed seeing, and actively communicate with each other. The relationship did move a little faster than I would have liked, but I say that in literally every single review when I review romance because I prefer a very slow-burn relationship. Since I’m biased, I’m not counting that for or against this book.
Something I remembered when I read this book is that fiction — my high school sociology teacher would say especially science fiction — mirrors and exemplifies real-life anxieties, and that feels especially pertinent with The Cybernetic Tea Shop. There is a lot of social commentary in this novella. As an autonomous robot, Sal has few allies and has to deal with constant harassment. I walked into this novella expecting a feel-good story about a human and a robot falling in love during their tea breaks, but instead Sal endures micro-aggressions from her customers on a daily basis, and the threat of violence at other times.
In addition to the social commentary and romance there is a lot of examination of what it means to love someone and to lose them, and how grief can make us afraid of moving on with our lives. All of the character development (as great as it is) in The Cybernetic Tea Shop focuses on Sal, however — Clara has some unhealthy habits and also a few insecurities, but her character is completely static and doesn’t undergo any change. Also, there is only one other living person in the book whom Sal has a long-term, positive relationship with, but this person doesn’t interact with Clara at all, and I feel like he could have been developed a lot more.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Cybernetic Tea Shop for its social commentary and the gentleness of its romance, but I feel like Clara’s character could have been significantly strengthened, and the side characters could have received a good bit more attention.
⭐⭐⭐ out of 5