Hope Arden has an unusual problem: people forget her. It’s not that they don’t see and hear her, but that once she’s out of sight, she’s out of mind. They completely forget her and their interactions with her. This makes it impossible to have friends, colleagues, a career, and even just a job. She survives by stealing what she needs. Hope isn’t happy, but she’s doing the best she can.
Things change after Hope steals a diamond necklace at a fancy party hosted by a software company that produces a popular life-coaching app called “Perfection.” This app monitors all aspects of its users’ lives, making suggestions about what to wear, what and how much to eat, where to go, who to talk to, etc. It awards points for making the right choices and deducts them when a user disobeys. Points can be used to acquire fashionable products (e.g., clothes) and services (e.g., haircut, workout). Leveling up unlocks invitations to special social events and clubs that will help the user meet the right kind of people. With extended use, people who “have Perfection” do indeed appear to have become the “best” possible version of themselves.
After Hope steals the diamonds at the party, someone from Perfection sets out to find her. Hope gets caught up in plots and investigations related to the software, as well as her own past criminal activity. The story jumps around in time as Hope fills in her backstory, and it traverses the world as Hope tries to avoid detection and interacts in the present time with police inspectors, terrorists, software designers, neuroscientists, shady characters on the Dark Net, a boyfriend, and her own disabled sister. In the process, Hope learns that the science behind Perfection may offer a solution to her own existential crisis.
There are three main themes in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. One is about memory. You really have to suspend disbelief to go with the premise that nobody remembers Hope or their interactions with her. This is difficult to do, but once you decide to buy in, it’s fascinating to think about how important other people’s memories are to your own self-identity. I won’t go off on an essay about that so as not to steal Claire North’s thunder, but if you give this a bit of thought you’ll realize that there’s not really much point in your own existence apart from other people. This has been explored in other sci-fi thrillers, such as one of my favorite novels, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, but North gives the concept a thorough investigation, examining the social, financial, mental and behavioral consequences of being truly alone and forgettable, and showing us how so much of our personal ethical and moral standards come not from within but from outside social pressures. When those pressures are gone, what happens to our standards? And is it possible that our social interactions and other people’s thoughts about us actually make us who we truly are? Who are we without them? If nobody remembers us, do we even really exist? Caretakers who have a loved one with dementia may be able to relate to this. It is very painful to realize that someone you love has lost some (or all) of their memories of you and, in that case, it very well may feel like you don’t exist, at least for that person. What if you didn’t exist for anybody?
The second main theme is very much related: How do we define ourselves? How do we decide what kind of person we are? And if we conform to society’s standards of perfection (beauty, behavior, etc.), are we really ourselves, are we even distinct beings, or are we all just another slightly less tragic version of Hope?
And, related to that is the third theme: How is technology changing us? Is it part of our self-identity? How should we view it? Is it a force for good or evil, or is it merely a tool in the hands of those who will use it to further their own agendas, whether good or evil?
There are lots of other ideas that Claire North asks us to think about in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. It’s the type of science fiction novel that I love and something that I would normally give my highest rating, but in this case I felt like the story, which is supposed to be a “thriller” (North’s word) needed to be shorter. Some scenes dragged on too long and there were too many choppy stream-of-consciousness segments (some including dictionary and encyclopedia entries) and too many episodes of repetitive self-contemplation. I got impatient with these. (On the other hand, I appreciate how North is always experimenting with style.) There were also a few too many places where I had to force myself to suspend disbelief. The premise, as mentioned, was one of these, but also Hope’s vast array of knowledge and skills and her knack of getting others to confide in her (though she is always a stranger) eventually wore through my eagerness to believe in Hope. (On the other hand, I appreciate that Hope, and North’s other characters, do not fit any stock-character molds. They are refreshingly ethnically diverse, too.)
One thing that was really cool about the science in The Sudden Appearance of Hope is that the day I finished reading it, a journal article was published in my favorite science journal (Nature Neuroscience) describing a procedure very similar to that used by the company that produced Perfection. I won’t say more since it would spoil the plot of the story, but you might want to read a news release about it after you read the book.
The audiobook version of The Sudden Appearance of Hope was released by Hachette Audio and read by Gillian Burke. She has a lovely voice and read the story with the perfect amount of drama. She was terrific. The audiobook is 16.5 hours long.