In his remark, Tsuyoshi Takaki expresses his desire for people to reconsider what we as humans consider “normal.” That is an excellent overview of the book – Roue, an eleven-year-old girl, is the sole human in the novel, and no one knows how she wound up on Zett’s doorway as a baby in a rocket. Zett, an intellectual “gear” (the in-world term for robots), takes on the responsibility of raising her, but when a psychotic gear kills his physical body, Chrome, a bizarre gear Roue unintentionally awakens, takes over. Chrome is very advanced in comparison to the other robots, but once he assigns himself the basic job of defending Roue, we can watch him changing and growing in a decidedly human way.
Chrome’s capacity to choose his own “base program,” a directive most other gears have had implanted by humans, is the most significant indicator of his advanced condition. Although Zett initially appears to take it for granted that Chrome can perform such a thing, even he admits that the request is strange in the first place. It’s possible that Zett’s background as an anthropology professor inspired him to make the recommendation; Zett is an excellent uncle to Roue (he prefers not to be called her father) since he finds human behavior endlessly intriguing. However, his more complex systems also collide with other gears that encounter Chrome, and the inference appears to be that he was a prototype of a more advanced form of artificial intelligence being researched before World War Three ended, well, everything.
If you notice any resemblances to Isaac Asimov’s 1976 novelette Bicentennial Man, it’s probably certainly on purpose. Asimov’s first law of robotics is directly mentioned in the novel, and we see someone reading that book in one panel. Chrome’s trajectory parallels that of Asimov’s protagonist, Andrew, right down to the story taking place two hundred years after he was probably created. In Asimov’s novel, Andrew becomes more human over time, and his first human contact with a small child he refers to as Little Miss becomes his defining experience. Even the imagery seems to support this; when Chrome first appears in the novel, he appears as a huge, boxy robot, similar to those seen in the 1950s, but when he determines that safeguarding Roue is his primary mission, he emerges from that shape appearing incredibly human. Although Takaki’s world appears to feature only one human, Roue, parallels are already emerging, making this a particularly interesting story for aficionados of traditional science fiction.
This first volume is supposed to be about setting the scene, but it doesn’t feel that way. After meeting Roue, Zett, and Chrome, and Chrome accepting the assignment of his own free will, he and Roue embark on a trip to find someone who can transfer Zett’s memory into a new body. This leads them to meet additional gears, including Professor Isaac and his helper Mary, Kidd the engineer, and later a knight who is still guarding a precise line in the sand from trespassers. Chrome’s differences are noted by each character, but they also add to his expanding vision. It would have been easy for interactions to deteriorate into information dumps, yet this rarely occurs. Instead, we get chunks of world history as notes between a few chapters, giving the impression that we’re reading a textbook; this is far more interesting than it seems and helps the plot to flow seamlessly. Characters such as Kidd, who continues to work at the factory where he was first employed despite the fact that all of his human companions have died, give us a sense of melancholy and how the world used to be, while so-called insane gears, whose software has become corrupted over time, help to inform us about how common gears were. It works effectively to lure us into the plot while keeping that slightly bittersweet sensation of a long-gone world that the best post-apocalyptic stories achieve.
Takaki’s artwork also contains some nice touches. Chrome’s cognitive processes are illustrated as panels within a full-page sketch of his basic boxy appearance in one especially powerful sequence. Isaac’s “undergoing maintenance” version of a daruma on spider legs is just frightening enough. Because of certain inconsistencies in how her physique is drawn early on, I mistakenly assumed Roue was older than she is. Nonetheless, Mary, who has replaced her original legs with fighting ones, offers the majority of the fanservice. The background graphics gives a strong impression of the world being a huge wasteland, and each gear is distinct enough to demonstrate that careful effort went into its design.
The premise of Heart Gear, in which an artificial lifeform becomes human through interactions with a human infant, is well-known. Asimov certainly inspired it, and anime lovers will recognize parallels to titles such as Brigadoon. But that doesn’t make it any less good, and this is a terrific start to what promises to be an intriguing story.