Publisher - Titan
Published - 6th February
Price - £8.99 paperback
I wish to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review
Nell Crane has never held a boy’s hand.
In a city devastated by an epidemic, where survivors are all missing parts – an arm, a leg, an eye – Nell has always been an outsider. Her father is the famed scientist who created the biomechanical libs that everyone now uses. But she’s the only one with her machinery on the inside: her heart. Since the childhood operation, she has ticked. Like a clock, like a bomb. And as her community rebuilds, everyone is expected to contribute to the society’s good…but how can Nell live up to her father’s revolutionary ideas when she has none of her own?
Then she finds a lost mannequin’s hand while salvaging on the beach, and inspiration strikes. Can Nell build her own companion in a world that fears advanced technology? The deeper she sinks into this plan, the more she learns about her city – and her father who is hiding secret experiments of his own.
I believe it was The Beatles who once sang that it was 200 years ago today that Mary Shelley taught the science fiction world to play. Frankenstein started the debate about our ethical approach to science and the ability to create artificial life. It’s a theme we have continually explored ever since and in this fascinating debut novel Sarah Maria Griffin explores the theme in a delightfully subversive and also refreshingly optimistic approach to the subject.
The story is set in a future world nearly 100 years after an apocalypse struck an island’s population. Its not the UK or the US but an unnamed country of soda bread, tea, and a sense of community (certainly a hint of Ireland comes across!). A century earlier an effort to attempt even more digital progress instead led to a huge technological collapse causing EMP pulses and a deadly plague that wiped out most of the original population. However, rather than the standard march into a dystopia the remaining community came together strongly. Slowly but surely, they are rebuilding their land and moving forward. It’s tough – pubs have only just become back into being! But Griffin gives us a increasingly confident society building inspiring monuments; the only big glaring gap is technology – the idea of artificial intelligence even a simple microchip is considered heresy. The elders remember that the machines caused the downfall they have only just survived.
The technical exception though is where Nell Crane our lead character appears. Nell’s parents are hugely respected. Her late mother Cora gave them the design for the new in progress monument being built as a beacon of hope for the future. While her father Julian developed artificial limb. The community is still suffering the impact of the plague and people are born without limbs or even parts of their body. The local population now expect each new generation to contribute their ideas for improving the island or if not then they must move into the local stonemason group or even out into the pastures where a group more interested in magic and rituals lurk (including Nell’s Nan). In the face of these parental giants Nell has absolutely nothing as an idea for her contribution…until she sees a mannequin and in a flash of inspiration decides to create an artificial man and challenge the non-technical orthodoxy that has developed.
There are so many areas I can praise in this book. The central character of Nell is a complex detached young woman. Partly this is because as she received an artificial heart as a child (that ticks loudly) she is viewed as physically; but add in her family’s lineage and the community assess her differently. Nell also is quite happy to observe rather than directly get involved in society. In the bar she watched from the side-lines not dance in the party and instead machines and design are her passions. Despite this introversion she has almost two friends – Ruby the young artistic dress designer and Oliver the undertaker’s son who as well as sharing lessons in the creation of limbs is also clearly fixated on Nell. But Nell is not looking for that type of companion and that is an element into the creation of the artificial intelligence that she wants to build. She a mix of tough with strangers and vulnerable internally as she tries to overcome her natural urge to be sarcastic and rude. I was really touched when there are scenes of what she wishes to what she could say to her friends when they cross her and what she actually says! She is also shown to be working out who she is – is she just eternally in her parents’ shadow or can she offer something even greater?
As you can probably already see I’m really impressed by the worldbuilding in the novel. It feels fresh compared to so many recent dystopian futures to see one where people are coming together as a community. Children are valued (provided they can make a contribution) and despite the loss of limbs there is a vibrancy in the life the community is pulling together. Its delightful when Griffin shows that behind the façade of the town being anti-technology there lies a young heart wanting to explore the electronic path and see what they can make of it. My one caveat is that if you are expecting an early appearance of AI then you may be disappointed - it’s nearly two thirds of the book before they make their appearance but for me the creation of the world and the characters and moral dilemmas within are so much better fleshed out first that you can then understand how the appearance of this new element will cause so many unexpected events.
Griffin adds several gorgeous emotional kicks to the novel. The simple act of watching the first pop video played for 100 years is a moment where you see young people suddenly pulled together and rocked by the power of music (in an age when even Bowie has been lost!). It gives those who listen a understanding of something greater and that rush of energy that roc and pop can deliver into your soul. This is further increased with the eventual arrival of Io - Nell’s artificial man who certainly seems to be benign and potentially could unlock even more ancient parts of the world. His scenes with nell as he responds to being activated are fascinating and even Nell realises that he is far more alive than she ever expected. It is however not all optimistic Nell has to battle in what could be seen as fairly standard parts of a teenager’s life. Ruby does not approve of her following a technological path; Oliver wants her to move into business and a relationship – but at no time do the way these moments are played do they seem purely for emotional effect. In fact, the way most of the characters respond is refreshing mature. There is a running theme in the book that the young are not the ones going to cause trouble but want to repair the mistake the past made. This comes into a very dark plotline where Bell has to face the fact that her loveable absent-minded professor of a father actually has his own ambitions and an approach to his career that directly could limit her own growth. Those encounters turn into the most powerful parts of the novel and create a very unsettling conclusion as truths are unearthed at last.
The book this most reminded me of was Station Eleven. It shared that theme of a lost past/present technology that gave us benefits we perhaps don’t always appreciate today and a sense of rebuilding the future based around the best parts of it. It is fundamentally an optimistic piece of science fiction and in the dark days of the present that is so refreshing. Whereas Victor Frankenstein seemed to be in the search for life purely for his own goals with Nell Crane we have someone focused on using science to better her world. It feels an overdue angle to take on the theme and I think it’s safe to say I will be very interested in Griffin’s future novels. A debut I strongly urge you to pick up.