This week, I’m reviewing the debut novel from Paul Braddon, The Actuality, due out with Sandstone Press on the 18th of February (and already optioned by the BBC). Artificial intelligence is always going to get my attention, and there’s plenty of food for thought here. This review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
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.
The Actuality will be published by Sandstone Press on the 18th of February, and is Paul Braddon’s debut novel. You can read more about him here, and pre-order your own copy of the book through this affiliate link.