Everything About You by Heather Child
I would like to thank Nazia from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Orbit
Price - £8.99
Published – Out Now
Think twice before you share your life online
Freya has a new virtual assistant. It knows what she likes, what she wants and whose voice she most needs to hear: her missing sister’s.
As Freya uses this new technology to learn more and more about her sister’s disappearance, she begins to suspect the missing girl is still out there somewhere, feeding fresh updates into the cloud. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?
I would be lost without my phone; literally as I have no sense of direction even in my own city (as many tourists have learnt to their cost). My social media worlds are increasingly how I find out about things I care about, chat to people across the worlds and let’s be honest probably the way you may even have got to be reading this review. How many of us are now talking to an Alexa or a Siri to help guide us through the day? In this excellent science fiction thriller Heather Child gives us a near future where we have an even closer bond with technology but alongside the benefits of being plugged into the world there are risks that we could lose ourselves possibly even our life.
Freya appears a fairly standard post graduate twentysomething. Unable to finish her studies she has joined the ranks of her generation working in a dead-end furniture store for an uncaring boss and living still with her ex-boyfriend who rarely leaves his room while her mother constantly monitors her mood remotely through colour changing jewellery reading her stress levels. Freya’s future appears neither bright nor enticing until she activates a new virtual assistant left in her flat. This beta model is programmed to adopt the persona of a host best suited for its owner. In many cases it chooses your favourite celebrity but after studying Freya it decides the best persona is that of her adopted sister Ruby. But Ruby vanished on her way to collect Freya from a party many years ago so why is her assistant acting like Freya is alive and well?
Child has created an absolutely fascinating near future for us and it all feels immensely plausible from the lack of open shop fronts now that people rarely go down the street to clothes and wallpaper being programmed to show any images you like. It all feels created from a path we are already going down and we are shown both the delights and horrors that it can provide. This includes the benefits of Virtual Reality for education or social engagement such as joining a LARP style event while in contrast there is the darker side of dating where all tastes are catered for and in fact some people increasingly choose to spend every minute of their day in a small room satisfying their virtual desires at the expense of everyone else. Some people throw themselves into the technology while there are places such as the amusingly named Medieville where you cannot bring in any technology at all and embrace a simpler pre-Technology way of life. It’s all seen through Freya’s eyes, so it’s very subtly introduced and explored rather than characters mass info-dumping which makes it feels a well lived and well-conceived in universe and one I was very keen to explore as the plot developed.
In this context the heart of the story is the relationship between Freya and Ruby. There is an interesting dynamic created in the book. An AI that talks in the voice of a loved one is merely initially a form of uncanny valley but Child quickly establishes the earlier and intense bond that Freya and Ruby created as teenagers and how Freya as a shy outsider arrived in London and met streetwise Ruby with attitude – they each gave each other support and helped the other grow so when Ruby vanished Freya quickly lost her confidence and this may explain her current situation. We really end up caring for both people and what happens to them. The intriguing experience for the reader is that as the AI and the flashbacks speak with Ruby’s personality not simply her voice, we very quickly able to forget that we are hearing a computer and we instead start to think of the AI as Ruby (a literary Turing test being passed!). Ruby isn’t a slave to Freya’s wishes instead she challenges and, in some cases, pushes her out of her comfort zone to start living again just like any sibling would do. Which then leads to the bigger mystery is this a really clever information gathering programme or has Ruby got back in touch and if so, why now? The latter half of the novel explores Freya searching the wider web for traces of her sister that takes her into some of the more secret parts of the artificial world and some of the groups that live in them (or outside of them). It’s an intriguing mystery where the person you’re looking for can apparently talk to you but cannot give you the whole picture and that really pulls the reader into finding out what has taken place.
This is an extremely well accomplished piece of science fiction that both interrogates our relationship with AI and the various social media it is applied to as well as providing a tantalising and unusual mystery. If you enjoy shows such as Black Mirror or the near future thrillers of writers such as Laura Lam or Claire North, then I think this is something you will really enjoy. I was extremely impressed and will be keenly watching to see what Child has to say in her future novels. Strongly recommended!