Happy Thursday! I am over the moon to chat about The Actuality, a novel written by Paul Braddon. I was lucky to read and review it last year when it first came out and today, we are celebrating the paperback release!
Before I share my review again, here’s a great guest post from the author!
The created world of The Actuality
Europe as depicted in The Actuality is over a hundred years further down what seems to be an inevitable descent into climate change and pollution. As a writer trying to invent a
cohesive future, I had to consider how the different factors would interact and what was
possible or likely in the time frame. Everything I included needed to be plausible.
Some of it is obvious: we can expect more extreme temperatures. England I depict as colder in winter, because of the failure of the Gulf Stream, but Paris milder and the Austrian Alps relatively balmy, despite it being still only January when Evie visits. The more extreme impacts on southern lands are to be indirectly witnessed such as through Evie’s glimpse of the vast camps for immigrants she passes in the train after crossing into France.
I think we can expect man-made pollution to have had a significant deleterious impact on the food chain, with increased contamination of agricultural and fishery produce. From this, it seems not unreasonable to assume that fertility will decline, birth defects increase and, in general, life expectancy shorten. The effect would be a population in sudden steep decline.
The resulting deterioration in economic activity would lead to increased hardship, in extreme cases reminiscent of the early industrial age. I enjoyed including imagery of Victorian horses and carts alongside the state-of-the-art, such as the hovacar stolen by Daniels with its holo-guidance system. Buildings and infrastructure require continuous maintenance – steel rusts, concrete fractures and roots squeeze into the resulting cracks and expand. It has been shown in studies of the area around Chernobyl, abandoned just thirty years ago, how quickly the modern world backslides when left to its own devices. In The Actuality, under-occupied tall buildings, many over a century-and-a-half old, have become unsafe and complex transport systems are failing. The London Underground, so dependent on being pumped dry twenty-four hours a day is drowning under rising water levels, making it hard to get around.
Under all this pressure, society is fragmenting and becoming insular, with communities
shunning strangers – you get a glimpse of this when Evie and Daniels pass through a barrier at the end of the canal path erected by the local East End estate. On a national level, the UK now comprises only England and Wales – Scotland and Northern Ireland having gone their own ways – a scenario which may soon not be so imaginary.
But not all are losers. Apart from the option of hiding away like Matthew, those agile enough to adapt would be able to reap the benefits that technological advance brings. In The Actuality, this has led to pockets of affluence, such as Cambridge, wedged uncomfortably alongside a crumbling society powered by human toil. The outcome would be civil unrest and its inevitable concomitant heavy-handed policing, and even the unworldly Evie quickly becomes aware that the main purpose of the police in 2130 is to protect the haves from the have-nots.
Note from Meggy: I really admire how Paul created this world and made it familiar enough to imagine and foreign enough to feel off, or scare me!
This review was first published in April 2021!
The Actuality is the definition of the right kind of literary dystopian sci-fi novels. I am generally not into literary fiction as it makes me feel stupid (I can never remember the beginning of a sentence starting three lines above and composed of words I don’t know!) or bored very quickly. I read sci-fi once in a while, when a blurb catches my eye or if there is a dystopian vibe to the book. So you may wonder why I just defined Paul Braddon’s book as literary sci-fi if it’s not my usual drug. Because it feels good to venture into new worlds. Because broadening your horizons mean you discover little nuggets of fiction that are worth it. Like The Actuality.
What made The Actuality stand out and what did I enjoy?
The setting => A futuristic London. I am an adopted Londoner and any excuse to spend time in the city is good for me. The author created quite a scary London, though, and I never felt safe while walking the streets…
The main character => Evie. In a nutshell, she’s a robot. Not any robot. I just said I didn’t feel safe walking around London… Well, I shared this feeling with Evie. Now you may wonder how this is possible as robots don’t have feelings. Do they? The thing with Evie is that she is an exceptional creation. If at the start she is quite happy to go with what others say or decide for her, rendering her believable and plausible, somewhere along the way, her true self awakes and the real Evie shows up.
The plot => Evie’s kind was outlawed but her owner kept her unregistered and hidden in his apartment for forty years. Shielded from the real world, nothing has prepared her to be thrown into the street after a very unfortunate event. Away from the luxury life, she’s always known, Evie needs to rely on herself to survive in a world for which she is the enemy. Never fully explained, it is hinted that something went badly wrong with bio-engineered humans and that it was decided we could do without them. It was fascinating to discover the world at the same time as Evie, from a gorgeous apartment to filthy and dangerous places. Like her, the reader doesn’t know what awaits outside. It definitely helped me connect to her, despite Evie not being ‘alive’… Writing this makes me uncomfortable. Evie did have feelings. A goal. Hopes. The threat and fear of her being discovered never leave the pages and adds a palpable tension to the read that was very enjoyable. Each obstacle on Evie’s path reinforced my idea that she was not just a great piece of work. The author touched upon the uncomfortable subject of AI turning up with a kind of conscience, and the human fascination and wariness of technology. It’s all around us, and there is no one to say where the limit stands.
The writing => Literary fiction… I blame lit classes for my discomfort and urge to cringe when I read or hear those two words. Yet, from time to time, I discover an author who managed to build a world and insert emotional resonance with strong and intelligent prose. It is the case with Paul Braddon, who transported me in 2130 with ease and blended science fiction with descriptive writing that was very satisfying to devour.
Verdict: The Actuality is like its main character, a new breed. It’s evocative, bold, and clever.
You can now buy the paperback! Amazon
My thanks to the lovely Ceris for inviting me to be part of the tour!