Simon Stephenson: Five Things I Learned Writing Set My Heart To Five

Set in a 2054 where humans have locked themselves out of the internet and Elon Musk has incinerated the moon, Set My Heart to Five is the hilarious yet profoundly moving story of one android’s emotional awakening.

One day at a screening of a classic movie, Jared notices a strange sensation around his eyes. Bots are not permitted to have feelings, but as the theater lights come on, Jared discovers he is crying.

Soon overwhelmed by powerful emotions, Jared heads west, determined to find others like himself. But a bot with feelings is a dangerous proposition, and Jared’s new life could come to an end before it truly begins. Unless, that is, he can somehow change the world for himself and all of his kind.

Unlike anything you have ever read before, Set My Heart to Five is a love letter to outsiders everywhere. Plus it comes uniquely guaranteed to make its readers weep a minimum of 29mls of tears.*

*Book must be read in controlled laboratory conditions arranged at reader’s own expense. Other terms and conditions may apply to this offer.

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My novel, Set My Heart to Five, is narrated by Jared, a biological android who undergoes an emotional awakening and sets out to change things for himself and his kind. As the wide-eyed Jared stumbles through a world he does not understand in pursuit of a lofty goal, he unwittingly breaks every important rule, accidentally causes terrible offense, sows chaos and confusion, and ultimately learns many valuable lessons along the way. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is almost an exact analogue of my own journey into novel writing. Fortunately, the drafting process means I got as many do-overs as I needed, but I did not extend this same courtesy to my protagonist. What follows, then, is what we learned together along the way.

Things Happen When They Are Supposed To

My previous book – a memoir about losing my brother – came out back in 2011. It did relatively well in a literary-memoir-about-devastating-grief way, by which I mean that it got fantastic reviews and won a small prize in my native Scotland, but hardly anybody bought it because it made people cry too much.

Nonetheless, after it was published, I decided it was time to write my novel. That was what serious writers did, and didn’t I now have a shoebox of reviews that confirmed I was had arrived as a serious writer? So I quit my job, stocked up on coffee and ramen, and nothing whatsoever happened.

Well, not exactly nothing: I began a half dozen novels, and each of them fizzled out after the first few chapters. In hindsight, they were all perfectly good ideas and the problem was never with them. It was with me: somewhere deep down, the book about my brother had felt like the only important story I’d ever have to tell. I simply was not ready to write another book.

Of course, I did not know that at the time. And so I tried just about everything to get past it – hypnosis, therapy, a prison-like writing residence in France, even something called the Pomodoro Technique – and none of them worked. Mostly, of course, I tried self-flagellation, and when that did not work either, I tried even more self-flagellation. It did not lead me to a finished novel, and only a prescription for Zoloft.

Mercifully, life eventually intervened with other plans. Some doors opened up in screenwriting, and that led me to a new life in California, first in Los Angeles, and later in San Francisco. And then – six years after all my endless false starts – one Saturday afternoon in the Marina District I had an idea about a screenwriting android. And I knew it was a novel, and not only that but that I would actually finish this one.

The process of writing Set My Heart to Five was plenty tough at times, but it did not require self-flagellation, a prescription for anti-depressants, a trip to France, or anything named after the Italian word for tomato. And if I could only go back and tell my 2011 self to take it easy, that if things are meant to happen then they will happen in their own good time, I certainly would.

If You Ever Stop To Think About It, Humans Are Ridiculous Creatures

In truth, I knew a little of this one before I began writing, and it played a role in the setting of the novel. The near-future allowed me to trace some of our current absurdities to their inevitable conclusions: by the 2054 of Set My Heart to Five, humans have locked themselves out of the internet, North Korea and New Zealand have annihilated each other, and Elon Musk has incinerated the moon.

Still, for all that, I did not realize just how absurd we humans are until I spent some time looking at us through the eyes of an android. Whether it be the minor achievements we believe differentiate us from the 8 billion other biologically-identical creatures on earth, or simply the unfathomable sport of golf, we are an undeniably ridiculous species.

Of course, nothing baffles and fascinates Jared quite as much as our lackadaisical attitude to the climate emergency. Please name another species, he’d politely ask, who would discover they are destroying their only habitat, and then simply carry on regardless? I didn’t have an answer for Jared as I was writing, and – with my state of California now on fire – I certainly don’t now.

Nothing Is Ever Wasted

I spent the summer of 1998 working as a dishwasher in a family restaurant on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was on a break from medical school, and being a writer – let alone ever writing about my little corner of the kitchen – was the last thing on my mind. But twenty years later, as my character began a search for work that would leave his days free, I immediately knew the job that he would do: he would be a dishwasher, just as I had once been.

The novel being set in Los Angeles and not coastal North Carolina, Jared finds his gig in a family Mexican Restaurant rather than a family Seafood restaurant, but the rest of it is all drawn from life. And if I had not worked in that restaurant all those years ago, I would not have known that the front of house staff – the servers, the hosts, and the imperial overlord that is the bartender – can sometimes consider themselves a little above to the behind-the-scenes kitchen staff. (Deep cut: I suspect this is because the front-of-house staff are expected to tip-out the kitchen staff, and mildly resent this, because who likes enjoys having to give other people money?)

Jared, of course, is not offended by his colleagues’ attitude, but simply finds it another fascinating example of the curious need us humans feel to institute hierarchies that permit them to feel superior to one another. And he stores the information for later use, just as I once did all those years ago.

Nothing Is Ever Wasted II

When I began to write the book, I set myself several absurd aspirations. The most ridiculous of them all was that I would teach myself to code, and then write a bonus easter egg chapter that took place in code.

Needless to say, I did not teach myself to code and we are all no doubt better off for it. But something I did learn in that research is that computer code is sometimes copy-and-pasted from one application to another.

In the book, Jared runs on a source code that was originated for use in domestic appliances, but has since been modified to support biological androids. Jared – programmed to sound as reassuringly human as possible – is very proud of this, and especially the domestic appliance he considers his noble ancestor: the toaster. The toasters I myself have known have mostly gone up to five, and this gives Jared one of his catchphrases ‘Set it to five!’, which is his way of both expressing maximal enthusiasm and paying tribute to his forebear.

The Future Is Already Here

The idea of writing about the future initially terrified me, and if I had stopped and thought about it for too long I might never have got started. Likewise, I will forever be in awe of writers who can imagine another planet, another galaxy, another dimension, but that is not my talent. All that being so, I deliberately limited myself to writing about places I already knew, and amending them to fit in with the misstopian future I imagined: Hollywood Boulevard will still be a tourist-trap disappointment, but the stars on the sidewalk will now be neon; Las Vegas will host the ‘Attrition Bowl’, a never-ending game of football played by biological androids cloned from the unsporting DNA of Tom Brady; here in Los Angeles, the sublet pool-houses of Echo Park will still be the place us screenwriters first land, but the pools themselves will all be empty.

I like to think the gambit worked, but if you are so minded I will of course let you be the judge. Perhaps I will be more adventurous and set my next book on the moon, but I have learned that things happen when they are supposed to, so that next book might be eight or nine years away. And, for all I know, by 2028 Elon Musk may well have incinerated the moon.

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Simon Stephenson previously wrote Let Not the Waves of the Sea (John Murray), a memoir about the loss of his brother in the Indian ocean tsunami. It won Best First Book at the Scottish Book Awards, was a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, and a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. Since then he has been dividing his time between the UK and LA, where he works as a screenwriter, most recently at Pixar Animation Studios.

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