Queen’s alum Iain Reid’s novel Foe sees the future

Psychological thriller becomes timely examination of Science Fiction

Author of Foe, Iain Reid.   
Journal File Photo

In the near future, a young couple, Junior and Hen, receive an offer: a clone in exchange for a husband.

It’s the first scene of Queen’s alum Iain Reid’s second novel, Foe. The following story is a taut psychological thriller that most readers will down in a single sitting.

In those first few pages, a stranger named Terrence arrives at their secluded farmhouse to inform Junior he’s been selected for a years-long work project on a massive space station. While he’s away, his exact duplicate—a combination of a clone and a highly advanced AI—will keep his wife, Hen, company.

It’s a fittingly unnerving follow-up to Reid’s growing literary success.

He continues the style established in his last outing, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which currently is being adapted for Netflix by Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman. Reid writes focused, penetrating thrillers that balance the nuances of relationships, heady philosophy and old-fashioned scares.

Of course, in Reid’s writing, they all interweave to become the same thing: relationships lead to philosophical angst that inevitably result in trippy, mind-bending thrills.

These now-established hallmarks make Foe less of surprise than his previous work. Returning readers will be expecting the twists Reid hints at from the first pages.

It can hinder the novel: twists are better when you’re not looking for them, and noting every change in syntax or grammar with conspiracy theorist-like focus can spoil the book’s main reveal.

Luckily, Foe is still layered enough to hold its own against an increasingly crowded and popular thriller market. It’s accessible, and a casual reader can pick it up and race toward the end, but it also rewards patience and focus.

Reid packages his more literary or philosophical tendencies neatly into tight sentences and grounded character exploration that veers into horror the longer his novel goes on.

As a result, what starts as a rote SciFi premise of going on a journey in space is flipped on its head as lingering doubts creep deeper in the protagonist’s subconscious and closely-held resentments bubble to the surface.

Space is a sideshow for internal conflict.

Foe’s real success is choosing to show this other side of the genre, asking what the personal implications of speculative fiction are. In this respect, Reid wisely sidelines high-concept world building in favor of claustrophobic introversion as Junior ruminates on his relationship and his clone-AI replacement.

That’s about as openly SciFi as it gets. A character may make an off-hand remark on the adaptation to mass climate change. Another may note most residents have abandoned rural areas. But it rarely takes up more than a line of dialogue.  

Instead, Foe grapples with the anxieties of being replaced by technology. The question underlies several scenes where Terrence subjects Junior to probing psychological evaluations, as well as non-consensual medical examinations and tech implants.

These moments are deeply unsettling. While never over-indulging, Reid takes careful notes of Junior’s discomfort as he’s tested and analyzed with cool and mildly friendly detachment.

The scenes never come with a punchline or a pointed message about the role of technology in our lives. Foe raises these questions andlets the reader reach their own conclusions.

The details are scant and vague enough for any reader to graft their own lives onto the story, mirroring Junior’s anxieties.

That feverish readership will make Foe last far longer than its final twist.  

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