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The Actuality (SF) - Paul Braddon ****

An exploration of the world experienced by a near-human artificial lifeform, trying to make her way and discover herself in an inimical world. It's not a new topic, of course. Since Asimov's robot stories in the 1950s there has been plenty of examination of this concept - and strictly it wasn't new then, as it's pretty much the theme of Pinocchio, dating back to 1883. This could hardly be more clear from the movie AI -Artificial Intelligence (and to a lesser degree the Brian Aldiss short story it was based on, Supertoys Last All Summer Long) where the puppet from Pinocchio is replaced by a synthetic human. 

The fact this is a well-trodden path isn't a problem, though, because Paul Braddon manages to find new things to say and gives us an intriguing plot for Evie, the artificially intelligent creation in his novel. I was a bit worried for part of the first section of the book, which is quite slow, reflecting Evie's relatively limited life at that point, and set in a world more reminiscent of a 1920s country house than a twenty-first century London. In fact, it was ironic, after the recent venture by Kazuo Ishiguro into this topic, given Ishiguro's best known output being set in an English country house. Braddon's vision of the future also felt a little old-fashioned - an economically collapsed England where the dollar is preferred to the pound - not only are such dystopias starting to feel dated, but if they needed revisiting, the renminbi seem far more likely to be dominant than the dollar. But Braddon's book is far more readable than Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, while Evie seems a far more technically savvy creation than the oddly ignorant Klara.

I very much liked the way that Braddon makes Evie neither evil nor good, both extremes that can limit development in a character - instead there were plenty of shades of grey. Some of the other characters are less well filled-out, but even so, it's a book that manages to balance plot and character well. A definite positive addition to the AI/robot/android literature.

There was one thing I really didn't like about this book - it seems to be set in alternate universe. Not only has Braddon moved the Channel Tunnel from Folkstone to Dover, here we have a twenty-first century where trains (on a line that's currently electrified) are diesel powered. The idea of still using fossil fuels in the next century seems more like set dressing for the dystopian setting. I do also wonder if there isn't a bit too much homage to other Science Fiction titles (the antithesis of Ishiguro, who seems never to have read SF). Is it a coincidence that the American AI that Evie meets is called David, like the AI in the movie? And Evie's flight to the continent has more than a ring of Logan's Run to it. Throw in repeated Pinocchio aspects, more than a touch of the films Blade Runner and Ex Machina and even a nod to the 1931 Frankenstein movie and there seemed to be a lot of cultural referencing.

There is no doubt this novel has flaws (including the ending, which I really didn't like) - but overall it was engaging and enjoyable, while Evie's character had a lot more to interest the reader than is the case in many such books. A good debut by Braddon.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. The concept of telepresence and very well characterized in the movie Surrogates (2009) is more than interesting. Today and with the post-pandemic consequences, it could be relaunched with some technology similar to the one in the film.

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