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New novel proves a worthy ‘Foe’

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What is it that makes us who we are? And just what would it take to create something that accurately captures that indefinable something?

“Foe” (Gallery, $25.99) by Iain Reid is structured around that deceptively simple question. We all think we know what it is that makes us tick, but what if there were someone out there who wanted – who NEEDED to find a way to accurately recreate you for reasons that were seemingly important yet unfortunately murky.

What Reid has built is a philosophical puzzle-box of a novel, a near-future speculative journey that explores the notion of self-determinism and the lengths to which we will go to execute our perceived duty – both to ourselves and to those about whom we care the most.

Junior lives off the beaten path. He and his wife Henrietta live among the unending corporate-farmed canola fields. Their relationship – while strained – seems to be a relatively happy one. It all changes one day when Terrance shows up. He’s a representative of OuterMore, a shadowy hybrid of private corporation and government agency devoted to the construction of a space station/colony called the Installation.

The Installation is being built by people selected by lottery. Those selected are then put through a battery of tests by people like Terrance; partially to make sure that they are up to the physical and emotional rigors of the lengthy (two years or more) process, but also to determine the baseline foundational qualities of their replacement.

See, OuterMore believes that it’s important not to punish the loved ones being left behind as people spend years at the Installation. And so, after gathering all the necessary information, they produce a replacement – an artificially intelligent android that looks, sounds and behaves like the person who is leaving.

Junior and Henrietta are reticent about the presence of Terrance, but refusal doesn’t seem to be an option. Even after that awkward initial encounter, Terrance periodically returns to the farmhouse and puts Junior through a battery of tests that he finds unpleasant and difficult to understand. Meanwhile, a gulf begins to open between Junior and Hen that threatens to undermine their relationship even as the departure date fast approaches.

Is there something far more sinister at play with regards to Terrance and his increasingly-complicated tests? Junior has always been someone content with his lot; will this be the time that he finally puts his foot down and demands something more?

Like all top-tier speculative fiction, “Foe” uses the trappings of genre to express complicated ideas. The notion of being replaced by a machine is one that echoes current societal fears; if they can replace us at work, how long before they replace us in our own homes? How long before a machine is capable of replicating our perceived uniqueness? This idea of self and what exactly makes up that self – that’s the central conceit here.

The fact that Reid uses sci-fi stylings to explore philosophical concepts is engaging enough, but to wrap the whole thing up in a taut thriller package takes this whole thing to another level. The author locks us into Junior’s perspective, allowing us to experience his growing confusion and paranoia firsthand, all while offering only tangential insight into the actions of others. We’re right there alongside him as the walls slowly close in, leaving him completely untethered and uncertain.

There’s a raw, propulsive energy to “Foe” that lends itself to quick reading; it’s the sort of book that almost demands that the reader consume large chunks of it at a time. Short chapters can often serve as more of a distraction than anything else, breaking up the narrative flow, but Reid accomplishes the opposite here – the desire to read “just one more” is nigh-overwhelming at times. Creating that sort of compulsive reading experience isn’t easy, yet Reid makes it seem so.

It’s not often that you come across a book that is both a challenge AND a page-turner, but that’s what we have in “Foe.” Novels with this sort of conceptual complexity aren’t supposed to be this readable. It is a thought-provoking thriller, the sort of book whose secrets hover just beneath the surface awaiting discovery.

All in all, a worthy “Foe” indeed.

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