We begin, ‘It has been two weeks since my parents were killed’ and things go pretty much downhill from there. 15-year-old Audrey narrowly escapes death herself when she finds Alissa, the domestic Echo (Enhanced Computerized Humanoid Organism) standing over her parents’ blood-soaked corpses, kitchen knife in hand.
Audrey just makes it into the car, hovering outside the family’s modest stilt-house, some fifty metres above the muddy waters of permanently flooded Yorkshire. She even manages to destroy the pursuing Alissa, but she has few options as to where she might then turn. There’s her Gran maybe, but she’s spaced out on everglows up there in the New Hope Colony on the moon; or Uncle Alex perhaps, secure in his Hampstead mansion, the grounds guarded by mechanical killer dogs. But her uncle is the owner of Castle Industries, European maker of high tech products including Echos. And Alex had barely been on speaking terms with Audrey’s journalist Dad, whose writing warned of the escalating numbers of ‘tech nightmares that were becoming real’. In fact, he had almost finished a book questioning the ethics of bringing Neanderthals back to life and displaying them alongside dodos and mammoths in ‘The Resurrection Zone’ – Alex’s favourite project housed in what used to be Regent’s Park .
So yes, this is somewhere between SF and dystopia. Everything we fear now in 2014 has come to pass – tsunamis, flooding, Mediterranean populations driven North as their own lands became scorched deserts, corrupt police forces in the pockets of Big Business, manipulative political controls – the lot.
Echos in 2115 Britain obey, but cannot feel. They look like humans (except for the perfection of their skin and physique), they talk, they can be programmed to perform sophisticated tasks, they interact to satisfy human wishes. Alissa was a unique prototype Echo, designed seemingly for domestic service, but actually to kill. Daniel is another recent but very different prototype, for his designer included 0.01% of human DNA from her own dead child. That makes all the difference, for alongside the mass of information in his programme, he slowly discovers emotions. These, to his amazement (for he can feel amazement), include pain and fear and, when he meets Audrey, love. Logically enough, he learns to hate those who would harm her.
This is strong, relentless stuff. Matt Haig’s universe is impressively consistent in every detail. We inescapably inhabit this world. The plot is chillingly taut, and readers will be far from sure how things are going to turn out. For all the alien surface features however, the priority questions, 100 years on, have not changed. Haig alternates the narrative voice between Audrey and Daniel, offering contrasting perspectives. Finding herself suddenly alone, she struggles to make choices about who she wants to become; while he too is learning what it is to be human. Where she has known a loving family and education, he has no previous experiences or self-knowledge. The technology, the climate change, the controls – maybe the first signs are already with us. So what do you make of this is if you’re a reader whose life should reach into the second half of the century?