Foe by Iain Reid for the R.I.P Challenge
With his debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid proved adept at capturing a growing sense of suspense and dread which finds its release in a surprising and unforeseen denouement.
Foe, his second novel, is structured in a similar way. It has a bizarre but strangely believable premise and builds a claustrophobic sense of unease before revealing an ending which, like its predecessor, drives you back to the beginning of the book, looking for the clues you inevitably missed.
Foe is a book that benefits from little prior knowledge but the basic premise is this.
Set sometime in the future, Junior and Hen (short for Henrietta) are a young married couple living on a remote, rural farm. They live a quiet, seemingly happy life and keep themselves to themselves. This quiet life is rocked one evening by a visit from Terrance who has news. Junior has been selected, by random lottery, to be one of the first inhabitants on a space station, leaving his life on earth at some unspecified point over the next two years. Terrance must live with the couple on and off, to prepare them both for Junior’s departure.
Reid doesn’t go into many details about the specifics of Junior’s trip, nor about the company ‘Outermore’ for whom Terrance works. This is a very human focused style of science-fiction, where the very vagueness of what is happening works to the books advantage.
Terrance, Junior and Hen prowl around each other as if in a Beckett play as Terrance harvests data from Junior to help prepare for his trip. Terrance is cheerfully bullying, almost nerdish in his approach. Junior is openly confused by the whole situation and is more concerned for Hen’s wellbeing that for his own. Hen, meanwhile, is strangely passive and uncommunicative but there is a growing sense that she knows a whole lot more than she is letting on and the entire process seems to be bringing issues in Junior and Hen’s relationship to an uncomfortable head.
As a page-turning thriller, Foe is incredibly successful with its well-paced narrative that builds to a successful reveal. However Reid has given it a real depth as he explores the limits of human communication and our relationship to technology.
Why is Junior so passive in his reactions to what is happening? He doesn’t want to go on the mission, but doesn’t feel he can say so. He allows Terrance to interrogate every part of his life from his shoe-size to his food preferences to his intimate relationship with his wife and appears unconcerned as to what is being done with that data. It’s a timely theme, asking the reader to question how much of our own lives we passively allow large corporations to have access to.
Terrance puts his hand out as if to apologize. “Please,” he says. “I’m not being clear. I’m not explaining things very well. It’s not surveillance or active listening. The microphones in your screens are always on – you know that. It’s data collection. The program we use sorts through the information, categorizes it. It recognizes words of interest.
The relationship between Hen and Junior is also subtly excavated. Junior and Hen appear happy with their isolated, quiet existence, but the arrival of Terrance suggests that Hen might not be as happy as Junior has thought. Hen feels constrained by their life and doesn’t seem to relate to things in the way Junior thinks she does. Junior is convinced that he is Hen’s protector, that she is dependent on him. Hen doesn’t see it quite that way. Does Junior really know Hen as well as he thinks he does? Is it possible to really know anyone completely, no matter how close?
There are so many instances when I’ve expected you to understand how I’m feeling, and it just doesn’t happen. It’s so discouraging, draining. It’s like as long as we are here, moving from day to day, you’re convinced that I’m happy.
As the misunderstandings and lack of communication between them grows, they slip further apart, despite the fact that they face a long separation. It seems that the longer Terrance remains a presence in their house, the less likely they are to get to the truth.
Isaac Asimov said that “[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings” and like the best works of science fiction, Foe is most particularly interested in what constitutes our sense of self.
As Junior anticipates leaving everything he knows, he starts to think back on his life and what has made him the man he is today. He starts to discover, that not only can we not fully understand another person, often we can’t fully understand ourselves.
I’ll miss her steps and the way she blows her nose. I wonder what else I’ll miss. I wonder what she privately knows about me that I might not even know about myself. What will she miss when I’m gone?
Foe is a novel of real philosophical and psychological depth, at once a page-turning thriller which demands to be read in one sitting and also a questioning exploration of what it means to be human and to try and make connections. Reid examines the isolation that can exist within intimacy and his novel echoes with the most unnerving of all questions – will I be missed if I’m gone?
I received a copy of Foe from Netgalley and read it as part of my R.I.P Reading Challenge. This is the second Iain Reid book I have read in as many months and his is an exciting new voice. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Reading Challenge foe iain reid ripchallenge scinence fiction
Cathy746books View All →
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!
I have not heard of this book or author before, but it sounds pretty good. Nice review Cathy.
Thanks Carla x
Although not really my genre at all this sounds like it covers many aspects that I would enjoy – I especially liked the quote about missing the blowing of a nose!
It’s not overly sci-fi Cleo – the basic premise is but then it becomes a really good character study.
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Good to know 😊
I’m not a huge reader of sci fi but you’ve shown this is one I could enjoy because it’s not that far fetched that I can’t relate to it. That theme about data sharing is so topical too. One for my wishlist I think…
That’s why I liked it Karen. Sure, the premise is slightly far-fetched just now but the human reaction is universal.
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Your review is amazing. I loved this book! Never heard of term ‘social science fiction’ before but makes sense!
Thanks so much Ova – it’s a really great book isn’t it?
It is. I am reviewing it today on my blog but not sure I can add anything else x truly great review!
Look forward to reading your review!
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This sounds excellent! I normally like my sci-fi to have a bit more hard science, but this is such a timely topic and interesting premise that I think I will have to pick it up.
It’s great Lou, I enjoyed it a lot. Hope you do too.
This sounds a very worthwhile read, and the isolation you mention in your review reminded me a bit of that conjured up in Robert C O’brien’s YA novel Z for Zachariah (my review, in case you hadn’t come across this novel, is at https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4S). Another title I shall definitely look out for, I think: ‘social science fiction’ is a sub-genre I rather enjoy!
Me too Chris – I liked that the premise of this was a man going into space but that it was ultimately a novel concerned with the interior world. I’ll check out your review of Z for Zachariah – thank you!
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I just lightly scanned the later paragraphs in your review because I hope to come to this one without knowing very much about the story. His writing process must include a lot of inner debating about what to include and exclude; I feel like the success of the stories turn on what we are forced to imagine and what we are actually shown. Even though unputdownable is perhaps an overused term in discussing the books we read, I feel like it applies to his style; his last one certainly fit that and a quick glance at this one suggests I would find it just as readable and compelling as you have. His first two books are autobiographical; I quite liked the one about his relationship with his grandmother. Have you considered his non-fiction or is it really more the suspense that appeals to you?
I agree Marcie – there is a major plot point that I left out of my review as I really feel that the less you know here the better. It is unputdownable, as you say, even though very little actually happens. He is very skilled at subtly building atmosphere. I will definitely check out his non-fiction – interesting that he has written autobiographical works given his novels are so tied up with the idea of a sense of self. Thanks for the recommendation!
“human focused style of science-fiction” sounds like my kind of science-fiction. My brother is interested in reading this, and I think it sounds perfect for him, too. Great review – it sounds good!