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Robots, basketball and blending in: Simeon Mills’ new novel ‘The Obsoletes’ looks at acceptance and coming of age through an unusual prism

May 19, 2019

“The Obsoletes,” the debut novel by Spokane’s Simeon Mills, is about two brothers navigating life without their parents, in the early 1990s, in a small Michigan town.

Complicating things is the fact they’re robots, and the reason their parents aren’t around is that they were deemed “obsolete.” Meanwhile, robots aren’t exactly popular, so the brothers, Darryl and Kanga, do their best to blend in.

It’s not like Mills, who teaches eighth-grade English at Garry Middle School, is an authority on robotics. He’s seen the movies – “Star Wars,” for instance – but admits he’s never deeply delved into the stories by Issac Asimov or Philip K. Dick that set the standard for the genre.

Besides, the robot aspect of the story occurred to him several drafts in.

“It wasn’t until I had been writing some short stories about robots, I was teaching at Garry,” he said, “and I thought the idea that there were robots posing as people among us was really ripe for challenging our assumptions about who we might really accept.”

Ultimately, he aimed to create characters who are people, despite their microprocessors. “They’re not humans, but in every other way they’re people. So that’s how I tried to write them. Although their bodies are different, everything else about them, the way they think, how they relate to each other, the difficulties they have in those things was going to be identifiably human.”

The book, released last week from Skybound Books, is a coming-of-age story set about the time Mills was coming of age, in a town much like the Michigan town he grew up in. His characters talk a lot about college basketball, because Mills and his friends grew up following Magic Johnson and the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” lineup from 1991.

Mills, who published the graphic novel “Butcher Paper” in 2015, first started working on a novel back in 2000. He was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with two other guys and working at an architecture firm – “I was not an architect, just an assistant, getting my foot in the door” – and he was miserable.

“I didn’t really like it. I didn’t really like the big city life either,” Mills said. “I thought I would try writing a novel, and I just wrote 100 pages, thought that was a pretty good first attempt and put it away.”

Eventually, he traded life in Brooklyn for life in the Brooklyn of Montana – Missoula – when he enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Montana. While there, he met his future wife, Sharma Shields, and realized he much preferred mountains and mid-sized cities like Missoula and (eventually) Spokane to big, bustling metropolises.

After grad school, he pulled that 100-page draft out of the drawer and took another run at it. “I tried to make it more dynamic,” Mills said. “Instead of writing about my own experiences, which is what he first attempt was, I tried to broaden it to include more thinking about things from a more dramatic point of view. … As I was even further away from that time of my life, the high school, coming-of-age part of my life, so I think I was able to be a little more detached, less sentimental. Which helped.”

The result, as Publisher’s Weekly put it in a starred review, is a world “where what it means to be a teenager is deliciously complicated, and Darryl, a consummate yet dissatisfied robot struggling to figure out his own programming, ends up being a wonderful guide to it.”

Still, it took two or three years (and revisions) to find a home for “The Obsoletes,” he said. Skybound, which specializes in sci-fi and comic books, including “The Walking Dead” series, seemed like a great fit. Also, he had quite a lot of advice and help at home. Shields, a Washington Book Award-winning writer, published her second novel, “The Cassandra,” earlier this year.

“Her moral support through the publishing part of all of this has been the biggest thing,” Mills said. “When we started at Montana, we were just students in a class and neither of us had published anything before.”

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