Thriller writer JP Delaney clearly has a problem with “masters of the universe” type men. Not so much the old-school alpha gorilla, but those swaggering, self-regarding, wannabe-messianic numpties who infest much of the arts, media, technology, academia and business. And sure who wouldn’t?
In his debut novel, 2018’s The Girl Before, one of the murder suspects was a brilliant, groundbreaking architect with a horrible and borderline-sociopathic personality. Now, in The Perfect Wife, Delaney’s third book in quick succession, we have the dubious pleasure of an introduction to Tim Scott: a brilliant, groundbreaking tech guru with, you guessed it, a horrible and borderline-sociopathic personality.
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English by nationality and long-resident in California’s Silicon Valley, he’s founder and chief executive of Scott Robotics. Their main projects revolve around machine and/or artificial intelligence – which brings us to Abbie.
She’s Tim’s wife. Except she’s dead. Five years ago, Abbie disappeared while surfing during a storm. Her body was never found; it was assumed she’d drowned.
So who is this Abbie we meet in the opening pages, dreaming of her and Tim’s engagement? She’s a robot, a cyborg, an android.
That wasn’t a dream, as Tim explains to her, it was “an upload”. He’s implanting memories, thoughts and personalities of his late wife into this “deep learning” computer brain – in essence, resurrecting some sort of Abbie in chrome, steel and plastic.
She doesn’t believe his story, so Tim rather callously proves it by peeling off her “face” to reveal the machine underneath. He created her because he couldn’t deal with losing the love of his life. Abbie has little choice but to accept this bizarre state of being and try to rekindle her love for Tim.
The outside world soon finds out about the existence of Abbie the “cobot” (companion robot), and much media interest ensues. Tim is at pains to stress that it’s nothing dirty, she’s not a sex-toy; although his main investor, Renton, feels otherwise.
Abbie, meanwhile, must endure people calling her “it” and discussing her as if she’s just a piece of equipment – which, in a sense, she is. Most worryingly, her family have brought legal action against Scott Robotics, claiming flesh-and-blood Abbie never consented to have her likeness and personality immortalised as a machine, and demanding that this new Abbie be destroyed.
There’s also the matter of Danny, Abbie’s 10-year-old son who suffers from childhood disintegrative disorder, a serious autism-related condition. Tim has him in a school which practices “punishment and reward”-style behavioural conditioning, which horrifies Abbie.
Along the way, she discovers an old iPad hidden inside a favourite book, its contents encrypted, and someone is texting her: “This phone isn’t safe”. Mystery piles upon mystery in Abbie’s artificial mind: was she having an affair? Did Tim kill her? Did she run away? Is she even dead?
Delaney is a skilled thriller writer and this is a good piece of work, though not without some problems. He very adeptly draws Abbie 2.0 as a sympathetic character – not an easy task when you’re talking about a robot. Meanwhile, Tim may or may not be a killer, but he’s a fierce asshole: the kind of thoroughly dislikeable clown you want to punch in the face with his own fist.
I also liked how Delaney employs an unusual second-person narrative for the main viewpoint. Meanwhile, every fourth or fifth chapter, narrated by some third-party observer, fills in background blanks on Abbie and Tim’s lives before she died.
Less convincing is how our cobot’s mind works. Ironically, while Machine Abbie feels congenial, relatable and, yes, human, I found it hard to buy into the mechanics of her consciousness.
A mind is more than a collection of social media posts and uploaded images; more than that, Abbie Mark 2 seems to possess memories and emotions from her human predecessor that she couldn’t possibly know. This seems closer to magic than science to me, however speculative.
The plot also gets somewhat confusing towards the finish. The ending is poignant and clear, but there are a few twists before that which had me a little baffled.
Still, The Perfect Wife has an intriguing premise and a smoothly told story which meters out the surprises and revelations to perfection – mostly. And there’s enough “who is this I of whom I speak?” philosophising to lift the book, at times, to a higher level than many thrillers. An update, I guess that’s called.
Darragh McManus’s novels include ‘Shiver the Whole Night Through’ and ‘The Polka Dot Girl’
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