Review of Foe, by Iain Reid

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How many people know that the real name of “canola” oil is “rapeseed” oil? That was one of the lesser queries I was left wondering about with Iain Reid’s Foe. Another was whether the rhinoceros beetle has any kind of occult significant. Or why Terrance’s parents didn’t know how to spell the name of the Roman dramatist. As a space station places some role in the story, is there an allusion to “Terra” our home planet? The main character is named Junior and for just a moment as we are offered the final revelation I thought I’d spotted a significance, but no, that had always been his name. But who is he younger than? No one mentioned in the book. His wife is named Henrietta; Junior refers to her as “Hen” and he keeps chickens—which is apparently illegal because poultry is now confined to multistory battery farms—this clue leads nowhere. So far as I can divine, Reid has his own private mythology that only esoteric disciples are privy to, or he simply did not bother to finish his intended magnum opus and left us readers with a skeleton plot full of false leads.

As for the basis of the plot, I realized about halfway in that I had seen this movie already, more than forty years ago though I’m not sure whether it should be regarded as plagiarism or simply a standard science-fictional trope. Reid’s previous book I’m Thinking of Ending Things totally creeped (crept? Rule seems to be that back-formations are weak verbs) me out, and I was eager to enjoy this one and most disappointed. Apparently the author decided to change genres from horror to sci-fi with a dystopian ecologic message that became lost in transmission, leaving the yellow fields of rapeseed (bio-fuel we presume) and the rhinoceros beetles with nothing to do. Junior himself is a total bore (though once we know the secret, that is appropriate) who works in a feed mill. Supposedly he has won a lottery that will allow him to spend two-years on a space station. A mentor named Terrance moves into Junior and Henrietta’s farmhouse to prep them for his absence, which requires attaching all sorts of monitoring devices to him. Terrance is a brilliant satiric creation, given to such clichés as “It’s all good.” If you’ve ever made the mistake of letting a salesman into your house and then finding you can’t get rid of him, you’ll know the type. Which was my principal problem with this book—it was like listening to the kind of vacuum cleaner salesman who empties the bag all over your living room rug to demonstrate the suction power of the machine. And when he doesn’t make the sale, leaves you with the mess.

Reid can do so much better. Let’s have another horror story next time.

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