by Iain Reid
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Iain Reid follows up his praised debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things with Foe, a slim and deceptively simple-looking thing with a bald premise, a skeletal cast, and a penchant for very quiet atmospheric effects. This is one of those novels that concludes its business with a minimum of fanfare, in less time than it takes many novels even to set the silverware, so that you’re thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it.
The plot is telegraphic enough to fit on an index card: Junior and his wife Henrietta are a young couple living contentedly on a remote farm in the near future when a representative of OuterMore, a shadowy government corporation of a type very familiar from a dozen recent science fiction movies, shows up on their doorstep with shocking news: Junior has been chosen for a planned space called the Installation. The scene is written with a delicate play of innuendo, but it’s clear that despite the envoy’s smiles and forced courtesy, the invitation can’t be refused.
The OuterMore representative leaves, and all is quiet for a while. But when he returns, he returns in earnest: Junior must prepare himself to leave the Henrietta and the farm, possibly for a very long time. He’s worried that Henrietta will be distraught or overwhelmed when she’s alone, but their visitor reassures him that OuterMore has thought of everything:
I need to understand better, I say. When you say she’ll have company, do you mean you’re hiring her an assistant or something?
He chuckles, glances at Hen. “No, it’s not an assistant. It’s better than that. You’d be amazed at what’s possible. It started with the virtual-reality peak thirty or so years ago, but VR has run its course. It’s obsolete, as you know. This is next level, and it is fully guaranteed, in every way.”
“You’re not putting her into a VR pod for months, I say, because that’s not carrying on as normal, that’s not living. That’s a coma, that’s -
“Absolutely not! We’re taking her husband away, and what we’re going to do is fair and natural.”
Okay, I say. And what the hell does that mean?
“It means we’re going to replace you.”
A ‘bio-mechanical’ replacement-Junior is introduced to the farm, and the problems with this, the problems with all of this, are evident and unaddressed. Mainly, as mentioned, the whole business owes an unhealthy amount not to the long tradition of 20th century science fiction but to the short tradition 21st century movies. Look at that scene-snippet, for instance: the staginess of “we’re going to replace you” is pure brainless Hollywood; the concept of replacement itself is pure brainless Hollywood; the concept of both OuterMore and the Installation are both pure brainless Hollywood; the book’s four characters almost exclusively behave as if they know they’re in a brainless Hollywood movie. At no point does Reid dig in and lay out the nerdy minutiae that separates true science fiction from opportunistic genre-sightseeing. He borrows some raw basic elements from science fiction, but he does so mostly because he wants to explore questions of identity and love, not because he ever intends to give the props anything much in the way of texture or detail.
Unlike with most genre-sightseeing books, however, Foe is saved by the intelligence and delicacy Reid uses to craft the characters in his little ‘what-if’ fable, particularly Henrietta, who moves steadily from an oddly background figure to someone far more complex. Junior too is telegraphed simply but developed into something much more memorable than the cardboard figure he seems at first. The tension in the little farmhouse is the element that lingers long after the book is over.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.