Some might say this has spoilers, but is predictable writing spoilery?
Echo Boy by Matt Haig (Random House, 2014) is a somewhat predictable romance with sci-fi action and adventure thrown in. I knew from the first that Echo Boy of the title would be breaking hearts. I listened to the audio book on my commute and it was a good way to pass the time.
In Audry’s future world robots, sorry Enhanced Computerized Humanoid Organisms, do all the undesirable jobs. (Robots are so 2080.) Every household has an Echo for menial tasks, except Audry’s because her father is so very anti-tech. Turns out he may have reason for his Luddite ways. We meet Audry soon after Alissa, the family’s newly acquired Echo, kills Audry’s parents. Audry only just escapes the same fate. As her grief consumes her, she finds this is only the start of her android-wrought woes.
“But the scream couldn’t reach Yorkshire, let alone the past. No matter how hard you screamed, you could never reach the ears of the dead.”
The Echo Principals of “Knowledge without thought, action without emotion, service without question” aren’t going to plan with murderous malfunctions and Daniel, the next Echo Audry meets, disregarding his orders.
“There was a point where machines become something else… and then humans would be in trouble.”
Things are definitely approaching trouble, not least with machines waxing lyrical on love!?
“So who knew how much meaning could be contained in a single kiss?” says Daniel the Echo Boy
The antagonist is obvious from the start, but Audry is blind to who’s pulling the strings, perhaps we can blame her grief.
“Monsters aren’t any different to you and me. No one wakes up thinking they are a monster, even when they have become one, because the changes have been so gradual.”
It goes without saying that Uncle Alex’s mask of kindness deteriorates quickly.
“And when a joke is powerful enough, you don’t laugh, you scream. Yes, when the mask slips you scream out loud for all the terror in the world, and I screamed then.”
Masks are a recurring motif in the story: the Picasso painting of women wearing masks, the masks of the protestors, the mask of dulled feeling provided by neuro-pads and Ever Glo.
“Maybe the only way to return to life was to be next to death.”
There’s a lot of suicidal ideation going on. In her grief Audry often wishes she was dead. She never tries to kill herself, just thinks about dying. And has an inordinate number of close shaves with death, including when she goads her cousin Iago to use his positron weapon on her. Not only people, but Echos and Neanderthals cloned from ancient DNA want to die. Only the 2080s steel robots are immune from this plague of feeling.
“It is better to be alive than in a waking sleep.”
I realise Matt Haig writes about mental illness a lot, informed by his own expiences, but at times it read like a counselling manual for androids. Don’t give up, let all your feelings out and that’ll help you heal. The neuro-pads were an extended metaphor that bored me after a while. I wished I had my own to block out the pain.
“You couldn’t hate a ten year old. Or at least, that is what I used to think.”
Matt Haig’s world building is exceptional and often comedic with his predictions for Audry’s climate-changed Earth. Cardio was found to be a waste of time and everyone is obsessed with yoga.
“I am sure artists like Matisse would have agreed. The price of imagination is pain.”
The other thing I liked about Echo Boy is the comment on what makes us human. Is it pain, love, fear? All of the above? Daniel’s doomed Echo workmate says,
“I am not scared, I have no feelings.”
Daniel should have listened, but somehow he overcomes his lobotomy and the echo of his imagination tugs at his empathy, showing him a new emotion – hate. How Daniel acquired his more human leanings is very clever.
“I liked what music did to me. It made me feel emotions I wasn’t programmed to understand.”
These philosophical musings from human and machine are what kept me reading, even when little in the plot surprised me.