I was going to get so much done yesterday – but first I would just set up the next book to read in my Kindle, just read a few pages – then 4 hours later, the day gone, nothing I had planned even started, but “The Perfect Wife” completely read. I had to know what had happened in this really enthralling book, which started brilliantly – and then got better.
At the start, I thought it might be a “Stepford Wives” type of book – but I was quickly dissuaded from that idea. Abbie is a robot built to resemble Tim’s wife, who disappeared five years ago, supposed dead. She looks like the wife, has many of the wife’s memories, and unless she peels off her ‘face’ to reveal the hard, white plastic beneath, is pretty much indistinguishable from the original. More importantly, she has been programmed to learn and for empathy, and (as is quickly clear) has free will – that is, at least she can doubt and argue with her creators, and act against their wishes. In particular, she is NOT a sex-bot. Her designation is co-bot: a robot designed to be a companion. Tim, with his IT company, has built her to help him through his grief at the absence of his adored wife. Not everyone at the company is completely happy with the outcome – and not just for commercial reasons.
“‘He loves me,’ you say defensively. ‘Some men build a memorial. He built an AI.’ ‘Memorials bring closure. You’re the exact opposite. Think about it – for as long as you exist, he’ll never get over the death of the real Abbie, or know what it is to have the love of a new woman in his life. At best, you’ll only ever be a pale shadow of the person he once loved. How is that a meaningful relationship?”
The book is told from the point of view of someone in Tim’s IT company – but is not identifiable until right at the end. A lot of the time, the narrator appears to be speaking directly to Abbie, reporting either what she is currently doing or what the original Abbie did in the past – here using the second person. At other times, the first or third person voices are used. This method of narration makes you feel that Abbie is being observed and assessed all the time – even when she may believe that she is alone.
Since the original Abbie disappeared, Tim has been left to bring up their autistic son, Danny, by himself. He has employed an Applied Behavioural Therapist, Sia, to help Danny re-engage with the world. The book compares Danny’s learning process with that of Abbie, and the difficulties they both have understanding and communicating with the world.
“it also strikes you that in some ways Danny and you are in the same boat, both struggling to make sense of a world you don’t really fit into”
The book also debates the definition of being human. As Abbie says to her sister:
“It is me. At least, I think it is. It’s my mind, Leese. A very small sliver of it, I gather, but enough to feel like me. You can debate whether that makes me AI or trans-human … but the point is, I’m not just some electromechanical lookalike.”
“I have Abbie’s thoughts, Abbie’s consciousness, Abbie’s memories. What is identity, if not that?”
It makes you think about the nature of being human. It seems to you that you’ve met many people over the last few weeks who weren’t, not fully. … To the judge, mechanically applying the rule of law to every situation that comes before him. To Tim’s employees, diligently turning his wishes into lines of code while ignoring the toxic, misogynistic environment he’d created. And to Tim himself, believing that every problem of the human heart must have an engineering solution.
The co-bot Abbie has empathy, she can love, she has a fear of no longer existing and an ability to decide her own course. As you read the book, in your mind you treat Abbie as another human being, you feel for her, empathise with her and want her to thrive. Is it right that someone should be able to turn her off or disassemble her at will? It reminds me a lot of the excellent TV drama series “Humans” (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4122068/?ref_=nm_knf_i1) where sentient, empathetic robots, known as Synths, are seeking legal rights and protections.
And Danny? Is he more or less human than others? Some might see his rigidity of thought, his love of schedules and his lack of imagination, as robotic. When people talk about their ‘humanity’, after all, they generally mean their empathy, their compassion, their moral code.
But of course Danny isn’t any less human just because he doesn’t have those things. He’s just differently human: someone with an unusual ratio of rigidity to empathy.
Perhaps the real test of someone’s humanity, you think, is how tenderly they treat those like Danny. Whether they blindly try to fix them and make them more like everyone else, or whether they can accept their differentness and adapt the world to it.
As the book continues, Tim becomes less and less likeable and his reasons for creating the Abbie cobot increasingly suspect.
“‘I made her better. I fixed her,’ Tim told Mike in the same location, a couple of days later. ‘Anyone would do the same for someone they really loved.’”
Tim’s concept of love is somewhat adrift of most people’s, and rather creepy. The book also debates death and immortality – is the latter a desirable aim? Or should we just accept the finality of death? Something that Tim, clearly, cannot accept.
I found this book fascinating and thought provoking, as well as being a very exciting , fast-paced read, and would recommend it unreservedly.
I received this copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Rosemary Standeven - 05/08/2019