With an endorsement from Christina Dalcher and rights optioned for TV by BBC studios, The Actuality (2021), published by Sandstone Press, certainly has the commercial makings of a hit. What is most striking and buzz-building about this book is how The Actuality is so powerful in its own right. The strangely musky and claustrophobic City feels like old industrial London while simultaneously distant and futuristic. The world around Evie is brutal, with England in a harsh and sharply cold climate. It follows some steps of Phillip K. Dick, but marks brand new territory in the exploration of AI and what it means to be human.
Evie is a joyful character to follow. She is a near-perfectly bio-engineered human who for whatever reason, has developed a conscience – the mark of true AI. Evie is in hiding, but when her existence is revealed, she must take to the hostile streets. Her discoveries of natural space are among some of the most beautifully written passages in the book, with such attention to every whisper of the wind and green among the foliage. Evie’s experience of the world is what makes her feel so human. She is what we like to think humans are: open-minded, naïve, hopeful and kind. Sadly, these values lead her to be constantly exploited as Evie is surrounded by humans who wish, knowingly or unknowingly, to manipulate her as both a rare creature and as a woman.
Her growth throughout the book is emboldening, even in so simple a victory as her mastery over the voice within herself, Simon, who taunts and judges her actions throughout. Can we not all relate to this somehow? She develops as her own judge in the process, but this new judge wears her own voice in a development of Evie’s agency over her life and independence. Evie’s journey is one of constant, relentless and world-shattering reality checks. However, her truly kind and caring nature grounds and drives her.
Humans in the book are untrustworthy, untruthful and secretive beings. So Evie learns to be untrusting, suspicious and careful, while still as naïve and hopeful as when she set out – but she is learning. It is, as we usually find in science fiction, through encountering the non-human, we realise what truly makes us human. As an exceptionally designed and advanced AI, Evie is outside the category of human, but feels like the most human character in the book. Braddon’s ability to write about this rough and brutal world through the eyes of such an elegant and honest character is beguiling.
By Rory McNeill.