Everything About You by Heather Child
Orbit, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by John C Adams
This debut novel from Heather Child is billed as a mix of Black Mirror and Gone Girl, courtesy of a handy little sticker on the cover. I’m not usually much of a one for books, films or TV shows that describes itself as a mix of A and B. It often leaves me wondering if it isn’t very original.
That said, I found the subtitles emblazoned on the cover very helpful. ‘It knows what you like, What you want, It knows all about you’. They pulled me in as soon as I opened the package containing my ARC and absolutely encapsulate the essence of the story. I love it when bylines deliver.
Freya is twenty-two, and in the almost entirely automated futuristic world she inhabits, she is slipping down the corporate ladder without ever really getting her foot on the first rung. Courtesy of a teenage trauma, she has difficulty in using VR, and even with a biosciences degree from a good uni she can’t work for large corporations like Thalis Oomen’s Smarti. Her mid-range starter job in home furnishings is automated away, and she’s serving lunches in the cafeteria at U-Home before getting replaced by a robot there, too. In fact, courtesy of her break up with entitled ex-boyfriend Julian Oomen nothing much is going right for Freya, including the fact that her low salary means she’s still living in his flat, albeit now in the spare room.
Thalis leaves Julian a birthday present, which the lad tosses to Freya because he’s not interested. Most of what his dad gives him he just sells, and he’s too busy using VR porn to engage with the world outside his bedroom anyway. Freya is disturbed to discover that it’s a smart virtual assistant that uses the voice of her missing elder foster sister Ruby. No matter how many times ‘Ruby’ tells her that this is because the virtual assistant is programmed to give her exactly what she wants, and that the virtual identity of ‘Ruby’ is constructed out of the girl’s digital footprint up to the point where she disappeared seven years ago, Freya becomes convinced that Ruby is still alive and uses the virtual assistant to search for her.
Although it is presented in a futuristic way, the world portrayed here is little or no different from the one we live in now. The only difference appears to be that the government has instigated some sort of benefits system akin to universal basic income, where someone like Freya who loses their job can simply do a few hours volunteering at some sort of social project and still live quite a comfortable life. This gives the author the space to focus almost entirely on the relationship between Freya and Ruby, and peripheral relationships such as the encounters with their mother, Julian and Thalis. Together with the search for Ruby and the discovery of what has happened to her, this engrosses the reader completely. It is one of the most realistic novels of the tech age that I have encountered, reflecting that universal basic income, falling employment levels and advanced automated systems to assist in the conduct of everyday life are here, or very soon will be, and are close to achieving universal acceptance in our culture.
The story of Freya’s search for Ruby, and her personal growth during it, was very moving indeed, and the novel retained its personal focus on the sisterly relationship throughout with powerful effect.For a debut novel, this was exceptional. Rightfully, it was an assured offering which deserves to be enormously successful. As a reviewer, I make a point of learning as little as possible about a writer whose work I haven’t seen before so as to keep an open mind. I didn’t read the comments on the back cover but dove straight in. It says much about the excellence of the writing and the deft handling of plot and exposition that I was only aware when I finished and read the back cover that this was the author’s first novel.
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