by Paul Braddon
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 18 Feb 2021 | Archive Date 25 Feb 2021
Evie is a near-perfect bioengineered human. In a broken-down future England where her kind has been outlawed, her ‘husband’ Matthew keeps her hidden. When her existence is revealed, she must take her chances on the dark and hostile streets, where more than one predator is on the hunt.
The Actuality is a gripping, atmospheric speculative thriller from a powerful new voice.
A Note From the Publisher
Optioned by BBC Studios!
'Engaging, fast-moving and surprising.' Ken MacLeod
'Exquisite... Not since Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep have I felt so strongly about where artificial intelligence might lead us. Highly recommended.' --Christina Dalcher, author of VOX
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 10 members
Forbidden from leaving the apartment she has shared with her husband for the forty years of her existence, Evie is unique - a highly advanced, bioengineered automaton with the likeness and implanted memories of a dead woman, and perhaps the last functioning example in the world. She is unregistered, however, meaning anyone who guesses her secret could turn her in to the authorities. Forced to take to the dangerous streets of London, Evie will have to learn to blend in with those around her if she is to survive. Evie’s life within the walls of the luxurious apartment is one of comfort but also one of complete and utter stagnation, her agelessness only adding to this atmosphere. Although she is happy, she often finds herself wondering what life is like outside the apartment, and there’s an air of the gothic heroine about her as she looks out onto the streets below from her gilded cage. Her implanted memories comfort her, but only add to the feeling that she is insubstantial; somehow lesser than the woman she imitates and forever in her shadow. As a main character, Evie does lack agency at first - she’s frequently happy to go along with what other people suggest and largely does as she’s told. While some readers might find this a frustrating character trait, a less naïve Evie would be a much less believable one. Braddon has clearly considered how her cloistered upbringing would cause problems for her in the wider world, and the social cues she misses and the culture shock she frequently experiences make her easy to root for (even if it’s not always clear exactly what we’re rooting for her to actually do). The easy humanity he finds in her artificiality is surprisingly charming too - her modesty around plugging in to charge, for example, manages to evoke both sympathy and empathy despite a dearth of comparable life experiences for the majority of readers. The world itself is likewise well considered, with Braddon even showing his thinking behind it in a brief but enlightening appendix. The London of 2130 is very different to the London of 2020, and whilst some things might be a little harder to swallow than others - digital Big Ben has something of a Futurama flavour to it, for instance - the vast majority of the changes feel well reasoned and believable. These aren’t positive changes though, far from it - surveillance has vastly increased, the pound is so weak that British citizens are forced to carry dollars around with them because they’re more readily accepted, and the police seem to exist solely to protect the wealthy. Much of this economic fallout, it’s made clear, has come about thanks to climate change; without being full blown cli-fi, this is a message that’s well delivered and woven into the worldbuilding seamlessly. Another thing in The Actuality’s favour is the prose itself, which is excellent. Whilst some parts of the novel, particularly the beginning, might be considered slow by more impatient readers, those who like to savour every last sentence will find much to enjoy here. Whether it’s a brief yet evocative description of a character, an atmospheric snapshot of a scene, or even a desperate chase, the writing is consistently very strong. Despite the sci-fi elements occasionally crossing over into harder sci-fi territory, there is a real potential for genre breakout to The Actuality thanks to the quality of the writing and the contemporary themes covered. The Actuality is smart, literary science fiction, Braddon working with some really interesting ideas around personhood and identity and how memory relates to both, while never losing focus on the emotional core of the novel - Evie, and her journey towards self-actualization.
I am so impressed with this book. The imagery of future-England, the way people feel about each other - even the way there is advanced tech which is not accessible to all seemed like a true (but bleak!) representation of the earth's future. The actual storyline was intriguing, with natural highs and lows of action. It felt very satisfying - even if the story didn't go in the expected direction. Evie was a sympathetic protagonist, and the explanations for future history (if that makes sense!) were well written and flowed naturally, giving the reader a good background. Rounded up to 5 from 4.5 stars, and really that's only from my personal opinions about one of the characters which I won't share! Thanks to Netgalley and the author for the opportunity to read this book before publication. Would love to read more from this world!
Evie is a near-perfect bio-engineered human. She's the pinnacle of artificial intelligence, what scientists call "true AI'. This is the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence - the ability to exhibit behaviour as skilful and flexible as humans, artificial consciousness, awareness of external objects, of ideas and self. Some believe such a thing is impossible, other's that it's closer than we think. In The Actuality, Evie's "husband", Matthew, hides her away from prying eyes, and we learn this is because the government has banned her kind. AI bio-engineered beings were rolled out, but several disasters caused widespread panic and people came to fear they might be a danger to humankind. Now all but the most basic of service model is illegal. Evie and Matthew live in an apartment with Matthew's servant, Daniels. She's closer to Daniels and has a better relationship with him than she does with Matthew. She has memories based on those of Matthew's wife, who passed away years before, and she has consciousness which Daniels acknowledges. Matthew disagrees and denies she is true AI, which she finds hurtful. As the novel progresses we learn she wasn’t truly conscious when she came to the household. She was as close to it as possible, but not fully conscious. While only mentioned in passing in the text, this is a key debate in AI research: how to tell when something is truly conscious and not a clever imitation. The Turing Test, named after the mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, is used to debate when something should be considered conscious. Because it's easy for an algorithm to appear conscious when it isn’t; bots on social media show this all the time, and many accounts are nothing more than clever code. Matthews believes Evie is nothing more than a clever bot, but Daniels knows the truth, which is somewhere along the line she developed consciousness, and is true AI. When disaster strikes and Evie has to leave the sanctuary of the apartment, we learn Britain is an impoverished country, battered by economic decline and the ecological disaster threatening the globe. It's become an insular and bitter nation, and suspicious of outsiders and strangers. The Actuality is a great novel, it's a speculative sci-fi story of Evie's search for a home and a sense of belonging, but it also grapples with some big ideas, and ones which have a real urgency. The environmental crisis and Britain's place in the world is often discussed - and the author's portrayal of a country turning in on itself reflects many people's fears over Brexit. But it's his consideration of AI which is to the forefront. This isn’t as far off in the future as we might think, indeed it's likely society will need to discuss the issues the author raises about autonomy sooner rather than later. At heart The Actuality is about unforeseen consequences. Because humans are terrible at predicting the future. The climate crisis has crept up on us, and so will the consequences of AI if we're not careful. Indeed, they already are. Not too long ago I worked on a documentary about the war in Afghanistan. I was researching the drone programme. Drones, and to a lesser extent night raids by special forces, are a central plank to the US counterinsurgency strategy. Sophisticated computer algorithms are used to select targets. But in a guerrilla insurgency, how might US forces choose targets? It appalled me to learn one method was meta-data. Simply put, US forces harvest the phone contacts of insurgents. If an Afghan has called the phone of an insurgent, or the insurgent called their phone, the algorithm might well list them as a legitimate target. So "efficient" is this system, US forces kill people whose names they don't even know. Sometimes they know nothing more than a phone linkage. The algorithms the Americans use are a form of dumb AI, but AI they are. Already the US and others are working on more autonomous killing machines. AI is also being developed for civilian life. To be clear, AI is not intrinsically a bad thing, far from it, it has many positive applications; to believe otherwise would be Luddite. But as the drone programme shows, the consequences, if not considered, can be disastrous. The Actuality grapples with this, and Evie is the personification of an unintended consequence. Invented as the plaything for the rich, she is now conscious and therefore surely has rights. But in a world where human life is devalued, what chance does she have?
The Actuality. The premise caught my attention and once I started reading it grabbed it. An interesting take on artificial intelligence and the fact that in the future it was outdated and unacceptable to exist. A good read indeed.
Do androids feel, love, suffer and think for themselves? Evie is a bioengineered android of the most sophisticated kind. In twenty-second century England her species has been forbidden and terminated in many European countries due their involvement in a series of disasters. However, she is still around because she was never registered by Matthew, a wealthy widower who had commissioned her forty years before as a replica of his first wife. The affluent couple lives sheltered with Matthew’s personal assistant Daniels. They occupy a high-rise apartment cum adjoining private garden complete with pond, statues and alleys, the only outdoor place Evie is allowed to. She must be kept hidden because such a rare specimen makes a lucrative prey. However, when a flying hova detects her and crashes in the garden, she will have to run for her life. Evie is a complex and enchanting character: her husband thinks she is merely a sophisticated toy, which hurts her feelings as she overhears him; Daniels, instead, understands that there’s more to her. Braddon engages with a central question in AI studies, i.e. to what degree can AI machines achieve consciousness. But he does so with levity and without excessive theorizing. For example, having lived a sheltered life, Evie is extremely naïve and bound to make many mistakes as she is on the run. This gives the author a precious opportunity to imagine how an android might learn, develop and change. Braddon also investigates how her feelings, instincts, and decision-making processes might arise and develop: from attachment and sexual impulses to fear and feelings of motherhood, up to sophisticated mental processes. An example is Evie gradually imposing her own point of view over the inner voice implanted in her to control her. The depiction of England as it may become in 100 years’ time is all too close to reality: a country plagued by pollution, crime and economic crisis and constellated by dilapidated buildings and impoverished tribalized communities. The Thames is “poisonous and dangerous and full of slithery eels" and sharks because of warming temperatures and the tube not working as it has become too expensive to pump out the water. At times I felt like I was reading a script of an action movie (which normally would not be my thing), and unsurprisingly I read it has been optioned by BBC Studios. Everything in this debut make for a propulsive, engaging and flowing read. And the "human" side of Evie makes it suitable for readers looking for a page-turner even if they are not particularly into sci-fi.
Good book, gives the reader plenty to ponder. Great pace and great story. Well worth a read., a book that you will think about after you have read it.
The title of this book gives nothing away. I had completely forgotten what I'd known about the book when I requested it, so it took me by surprise. The time is around a hundred years in the future. Britain's experiment with robots/virtual humans/I forget what they call them, has gone sour. It's now outlawed to have an advanced humanoid like Evie - not that she realises because her owner/master/husband keeps her in their luxury penthouse flat with its splendid rooftop garden. For 40 years she's lead a charmed and refined life as his companion, seeing only her husband and his general factotum, Daniels, who does whatever a wealthy man needs to have done for him by his assistant. London is falling apart. Evie's home is surrounded by poverty, dysfunction and danger but it doesn't touch her life until one day when the police land a 'Hova' on the roof of the apartment to ask her questions about who she is. Not long after, Evie and Daniels go on the run. Wealthy people and powerful corporations would like to get their hands on Evie and learn from her technology. Who can she trust and where can she go? It's an enticing premise and I was soon hooked. In my mind, I was always thinking of the Channel 4 series, Humans, and Evie as one of the 'Synths' from that show. She managed to be the most human character in the book without being a human at all. We empathise with her terrors and her challenges, and will her to survive against seemingly unconquerable odds. I can't 100% be sure that I entirely understood the ending - but I think I got it. I enjoyed it a lot and will recommend it to my friends - if I can remember the title. It's a memorable book with an almost instantly forgettable name. Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my ARC.
Thrilling, chase-story set in the future with AI as the central character. Evie was built to be a "wife" to Matthew. She has spent 40 years honing her skills and being kept in a bubble, but now her secret is out and her kind is feared and hunted. With the help of some friends, she must flea for her freedom. I love this genre for its inherent creativity and the author takes time to consider what a futuristic world might look like. AI is advanced to levels where they almost appear human, showing empathy and potentially love. Evie was enchanting and her saviors unlikely heroes. The story was unpredictable and creative. I would love to have understood more of the science of the AI's (had to suspend disbelief at times). nevertheless an exciting, gripping journey kept me thoroughly engaged.
Literary science fiction set in a future Britain where climate change has decimated the country. A slow burn of a novel and the title a bit misleading. Beautiful prose from a gifted writer.
The Actuality is the definition of the right kind of literary dystopian sci-fi novels. I am generally not into literary fiction as it makes me feel stupid (I can never remember the beginning of a sentence starting three lines above and composed of words I don’t know!) or bored very quickly. I read sci-fi once in a while, when a blurb catches my eye or if there is a dystopian vibe to the book. So you may wonder why I just defined Paul Braddon’s book as literary sci-fi if it’s not my usual drug. Because it feels good to venture into new worlds. Because broadening your horizons mean you discover little nuggets of fiction that are worth it. Like The Actuality. What made The Actuality stand out and what did I enjoy? BOOK MOT The setting => A futuristic London. I am an adopted Londoner and any excuse to spend time in the city is good for me. The author created quite a scary London, though, and I never felt safe while walking the streets… The main character => Evie. In a nutshell, she’s a robot. Not any robot. I just said I didn’t feel safe walking around London… Well, I shared this feeling with Evie. Now you may wonder how this is possible as robots don’t have feelings. Do they? The thing with Evie is that she is an exceptional creation. If at the start she is quite happy to go with what others say or decide for her, rendering her believable and plausible, somewhere along the way, her true self awakes and the real Evie shows up. The plot => Evie’s kind was outlawed but her owner kept her unregistered and hidden in his apartment for forty years. Shielded from the real world, nothing has prepared her to be thrown into the street after a very unfortunate event. Away from the luxury life, she’s always known, Evie needs to rely on herself to survive in a world for which she is the enemy. Never fully explained, it is hinted that something went badly wrong with bio-engineered humans and that it was decided we could do without them. It was fascinating to discover the world at the same time as Evie, from a gorgeous apartment to filthy and dangerous places. Like her, the reader doesn’t know what awaits outside. It definitely helped me connect to her, despite Evie not being alive… Writing this makes me uncomfortable. Evie did have feelings. A goal. Hopes. The threat and fear of her being discovered never leave the pages and adds a palpable tension to the read that was very enjoyable. Each obstacle on Evie’s path reinforced my idea that she was not just a great piece of work. The author touched upon the uncomfortable subject of AI turning up with a kind of conscience, and the human fascination and wariness of technology. It’s all around us, and there is no one to say where the limit stands. The writing => Literary fiction… I blame lit classes for my discomfort and urge to cringe when I read or hear those two words. Yet, from time to time, I discover an author who managed to build a world and insert emotional resonance with strong and intelligent prose. It is the case with Paul Braddon, who transported me in 2130 with ease and blended science fiction with descriptive writing that was very satisfying to devour. Verdict: The Actuality is like its main character, a new breed. It’s evocative, bold, and clever.