Foe reads very much like a Black Mirror or Twilight Zone episode or maybe a Philip K Dick short story. If you’ve read a lot of speculative fiction or watched a lot of classic science fiction, the ending may not be a huge shock to you, but the story is no less powerful for that. Reid writes beautifully, and his spare style works very well for this reflective, quietly disquieting tale.
Junior and Hen are having a quiet evening in their remote farmhouse when a stranger comes up to the door and tells Junior he’s been selected by random lottery to travel to space. The stranger, Terrance, will help prepare Junior for the journey, and will also make arrangements so his wife won’t feel so alone while he’s gone. As Terrance begins recording every aspect of Junior’s physical appearance and everyday habits, Junior begins to fear that arrangements are being made to take over his life. Worse, Hen seems to be drawing further away from him, and more welcoming of whatever it is Terrance is doing than Junior feels comfortable with.
I loved this novel. It does raise the usual science fiction / speculative fiction questions about personhood and identity: who are we really? What makes us human? Is the essence of our humanity something that we can eventually manufacture? What if something happens that throws doubt on everything we know is true?
But for me, the power of this story is in the questions it raises about love and relationships. The story is told through Junior’s perspective, and his storyline is certainly thought-provoking and emotionally resonant in many ways, but Hen’s story also really stood out for me. I love the subtlety in which Reid explores the complex gamut of her emotions, from the little niggling things that dissatisfy her about the current state of her life and her relationship with Junior to the flashes of affection when she realizes — seemingly to her surprise — how much she loves her husband. I absolutely love the way her story turns out, and the ending of the book made me so incredibly happy for her.
Equally masterful to me is the promotional letter that accompanied my copy of this book, which is probably the most intriguing letter from a publisher I’ve ever received as a book blogger. The excerpt that hooked me is as follows:
Foe is a master class in writerly tightrope walking. Iain places realistic characters in hyperreal situations and then increases the pressure higher and higher, while at the same time taking away all conventions, tricks, and devices a reader recognizes from the literary world.
- How does a writer make an engrossing thriller with no thrills, a horror story with no violence, science fiction with no science?
- How is a book about outer space paradoxically about confinement?
- How can a writer give readers exactly what they want but simultaneously take away everything familiar from them?
Foe is a literary high dive. It’s a book about alienation and belonging, outer space and inner space, individuality and conformity. It’s about whether you or I or all of us could ever be replaced.
[Letter to reviewers from Nita Pronovost, Vice President, Editorial Director, Simon & Schuster Canada. Dated May 1, 2018.]
The letter raised my expectations for Foe sky-high, and the book didn’t disappoint.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.