The premise of The Uncanny Valley is that a radio station in central Pennsylvania launched a campaign to compile stories and personal accounts from small town citizens that showcase the culture of their hometowns. Supposedly, thirty-three entries came from the same unheard-of town called Uncanny Valley, which may or may not have ever existed on a map, and the tales they tell are singular and incredible. Those stories are collected in this book, written in thirty-three individual voices belonging to the residents of this ethereal town.
It would be easy to categorize this as a collection of ghost stories, except that so many of them are about living, breathing people who stay that way, albeit usually with some kind of transformation. Rather, this is a series of distinctly peculiar tales that add on one another to create a composite view of a remarkable town and its denizens. In bite-sized installments, none of the stories more than a few pages long, we are taken on a journey through the strange and wondrous annals of the Uncanny Valley. The fictional small town setting serves as a microcosm, within which rules we live by are bent at will and nothing is more certain than uncertainty.
Miller manages his large cast of characters adeptly, successfully transitioning between old and young, male and female, corporeal and not. Their personal tales are deftly interwoven, giving credence to their existence as neighbors, family, and friends. It’s fun to see characters who gave testimony earlier in the book appear in the third person walking in and out of their friends’ accounts. Frankly, I was waiting for some historical or character discrepancy to surface, but was pleasantly surprised to find consistency throughout.
The only minor quibble I have is that these letters are all supposedly “unedited,” and thus contain deliberate errors. I’m all for bending the rules and letting a character speak in his or her own voice, complete with an internally consistent disregard for proper grammar. The intentional misspellings, however, just detract from the narrative. Luckily, only two or three of the entries (conspicuously all by young “authors,” because adults apparently all know how to spell perfectly) use this technique, which means it was never really necessary in the first place.
The book’s title and town name derive from a term used to describe a phenomenon in robotics: as robots are made to look increasingly human, our emotional response to them becomes increasingly empathic, until reaching a threshold where they look so similar to humans that their mechanized movements cause strong revulsion in observers. In other words, robots that look almost human but still act not-quite-human are just creepy. The “uncanny,” according to Freud, is when something is familiar and strange at the same time. Again, more colloquially: creepy. The “valley” is a reference to a sharp dip in the graph of human empathic response to robots in relation to how closely they resemble us. (Presumably this theory also explains why mannequins and animatronics in general show up in scary movies, and bad CGI animation of humans is received so negatively.)
Have a look at the graph (although Ashton Kutcher would not be my epitome of “human familiarity” leading to an empathic response):
Similarly, the small town life depicted in The Uncanny Valley is in many ways familiar and comfortable territory, but each story demonstrates that something unnatural lurks beneath the surface. As the stories coalesce to form a larger narrative, the perversity builds, making Uncanny Valley increasingly, well, creepy. On its own, each individual anecdote is merely curious; as a collective, they become morbidly sinister.
Recommended reading for those dark and stormy nights. Read it by flashlight when the power goes out.
This book was reviewed from an advance copy sent by the author/publisher.