“Foe” by Iain Reid is a book meant to be blazed through in a single sitting. It’s a short novel, it immediately introduces a big old mystery, and answers to the story’s questions seem to be just barely obscured, so that if, like the novel’s narrator, you drill a spy hole into your bathroom wall, maybe all will become clear. But it turns out it takes more than a creepy hole to answer your questions: just like in life, eventually a representative from a massive corporation will make things horrifyingly clear.
The story begins with a representative (Terrance) from a corporate/government entity showing up to inform our narrator he’s won a lottery and he might be going to space to work on a habitat for humanity. Terrance makes it cheerfully clear that there is no choice in the matter: if Junior wins the lottery, he’s going to be a space worker for a some years. Not to fear though, the corporation will benevolently provide a companion for his wife while he’s away. Junior doesn’t like the sound of that, and he’s not mollified when he finds out his replacement will basically be a 3D-printed replica of himself.
Terrance leaves for a while, and Junior and Hen proceed with their dour marriage. They live on their isolated farm. They see a beetle. She unhappily plays their broken piano. Terrance returns to put some fancy stickers on Junior and interview the spouses separately and extensively. It’s simple and propulsive writing.
The novel does a great job of painting a dystopian frame around a claustrophobic story. Terrance chummily informs Junior he won’t turn him in for his illegal chickens (illegal because naturally in the near future only corporate mega-farms will be allowed to raise livestock). It’s brutally hot, and Hen is worried it will never rain. All vehicles are self-driving. And, of course, when a corporation enlists you for duty, they’ll kindly ensure your spouse isn’t lonely by studying your habits for years, taking some measurements, and engineering a perfect replica to replace you.
Reid’s first novel, the similarly engaging “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” ended with a twist. “Foe” has a couple of them, but this isn’t a novel that relies on its twists for its value. It’s the sort of perpetually unsettling story that will be replicated as long as writers find themselves interested in how people share their lives, how the powerful use the powerless and the sorts of “Introduction to Philosophy” questions that, were I to list them here, might be construed as spoilers.