“I want to live in a cave, but with a level of adoration.”
By Ruby Patrick
By the time I negotiate Ely’s generous but oversubscribed free parking, Thomas Heasman-Hunt is already waiting for us in the corner of the tea house, wearing a t-shirt with the three laws of Small Robotics emblazoned across his chest. (For the uninitiated they are much softer than Asimov’s laws – and are to be kind, be helpful and do your best)
The Samovar Tea House, in Ely, rings with the sound of teaspoons tapping against the delicate champagne-saucer-like, fine bone china teacups, which customers can choose to be filled with any one of a confusing array of teas. Thomas seems relaxed, despite being forced into deciding between the many dozens of chai offerings without any understanding of tea, and is keen to talk about the upcoming release of the Small Robots book.
The book won’t be Thomas’s first – the first of a sci-fi trilogy Legacy was published in 2017 by the small press Cynefin Road – but is the first book to land in bookstores. “I’ll feel like I’ve made it when I see it on the end of an aisle in the supermarket,” he muses.
Starting out with a selection of simply drawn and appealingly cute digital sketches, the @smolrobots account on Twitter has become a cult favourite for its take on a variety of subjects including tea making, political activism, anxiety, sports and unicorns. The joyful and kind nature of the creations have meant followers have become affectionate and devoted fans.
The success of the concept has been such that Thomas has been able to take a leap into the unknown and leave his salaried job to commit to creating on a full time basis. Between “Custombots” – made to order drawings of bots based on the those who it is for, merchandise featuring a variety of the adorable droids, and the support of a loyal Patreon following – Thomas has been able to start turning his creations into a living.
Small Robots was borne of an entrepreneurial concept – Thomas knew the idea would be popular and intended it as a route to commercial success.
“I had been writing science fiction which I had found was much harder to sustain and harder to build up. My writing started with blogging science fiction – what I found was it was a big ask when I’d written a story, even when it is free, to expect people to sit and read it.
“Just liking a robot is so simple that it’s an easy way to get people on board – it doesn’t require high engagement – cynical perhaps but it is what it is.”
He adds: “People don’t have a lot of time so I wanted to create something that is light relief. It is good and like read it but ultimately people like the robots – although I do manage to sneak many of my silly words into it.”
The “silly words” helped conjure a twitter account into a family of charming and purposeful robots, which has now extended beyond a thousand automata.
“The first generation of Small Robots were very much about solving problems and dealing with issues and anxieties. Now there’s more than one thousand of them and they’re getting more esoteric, more weird and self referential. Yesterday’s bot was coconut bot – it is a little shy.”
One of the trademarks of @smolrobots has become the somewhat unpredictable “mood” of Thomas’s tweets – with cute bots sitting alongside longer biting threads on issues of the day.
“It would be easy to be a bit too twee with it,” said Thomas. “But right from the beginning I wanted it to be a little bit acerbic, to have a message and to reflect who I was and what I believe. It’s not just a nice corner of the internet. We are living through a very weird time. I don’t want to pretend that is not happening – if you’re able to ignore it you have the protection of privilege – so to be true to myself it has to have that slight edge to it.”
He adds: “It’s quite a tricky line to walk. There are people who get turned off by it. You want people to follow you and like what you are doing, and want to be mindful and not alienate people. It’s difficult to gauge.”
Twitter, as many a celebrity has found over the years can be a difficult road to walk. Thomas adds: “I think it is a medium we are still reckoning with as a society.”
The popularity of Small Robots has led to an uneasy sense of notoriety, with fans and afficionados being an element Thomas has had to get used to.
“The weirdest one was when we went to a friend’s wedding anniversary, a ten-year family party, and the mother in law turned out to be a Small Robots fan. She came up to me and said she loved the Small Robots, even though she had only seen them on Facebook. I spent the rest of the event drawing Small Robots for the kids – it was nice but strange. My life is so surreal right now.
“It is very nice but very strange. The weird thing about being extremely introverted with an extrovert edge is that you really enjoy it but really embarrassed by it. I want people to love me but I don’t want people to know me. I want to live in a cave, but with a level of adoration.”
The book – entitled Small Robots A Collection of One Hundred (Mostly) Useful Robot Friends – is a collection of one hundred of the best and most beloved of the author and illustrator’s ‘bots — which delves into their functions, features, dimensions and backstories and shines a light on how they perform their all-important tasks in the world of their large human friends.
I ask Thomas to choose a single favourite of all his darlings – I worry before that he might not be able to choose a best-loved from amongst his brood – but the answer comes easily.
“Big Bot – it is just too big,” he says. “The original concept was of two people, just sitting on a sofa, with a robot leaning over them and it was just too big for what was needed. “It grew from being just a bit too big to enormous – it became this gormless thing that was just too big and so, so innocent and unaware of its size and bigness and daft and adorable.
“Whenever I needed a robot to deliver a joke I fell back on Big Bot every time. It’s a ridiculous cartoon that’s just too big – it’s defined by his bigness and there’s just a kind of simplicity and ridiculousness. It is not a hard bot to draw and is instantly recognizable – contrary to the point of Small Robots – it’s neither small nor helpful.”
- Small Robots A Collection of One Hundred (Mostly) Useful Robot Friends by Thomas Heasman-Hunt will be published by Unbound in hardback on February 20, 2020, priced at £9.99