One of the hardest things for a new writer to do is carve a niche for herself. There’s nothing new under the sun, right? How do you mark yourself out as someone different and interesting? Heather Child is, I think, making a good job of this by writing character-driven science fiction that is very much about how we live now.
Her first book, Everything About You, was a psychological thriller whose central premise was that “personal assistant” software on your phone would come to know you far better than you know yourself, and thereby learn to manipulate you. Her third book, she tells me, will be about narcissism and selfie culture. But we are here to talk about book two, The Undoing of Arlo Knott. The premise of this one is, “What if your life had an ‘undo’ button.”
Early in his life, Arlo Knott is involved in a very unfortunate accident. It is, to a large extent, his fault. The guilt will haunt him for the rest of his life. However, shortly after this happens he discovers that he has the ability to turn back time, to undo events and re-do them in a different way. He can’t change The Thing That Happened, of course. That’s now a long way in the past. But any recent action is fair game.
Now imagine that you got this power when you were 14. What might you have done with it? Kick the school bully in the nuts and undo it? Talk back to a teacher and undo it? Kiss a girl you fancy and undo it? All these things that you want to do, but suspect the consequences of doing them will be very bad, you can try out and then erase.
Power, as they say, corrupts. As he grows older, Arlo discovers that his powers are useful in other ways. At the casino, put all your money on black, and if red comes up undo it and try again. If a chat-up line doesn’t work on a girl you fancy, undo it and try something else until you have found what works with her.
As the novel progresses, Arlo discovers that unearned success doesn’t bring happiness. He tries to grow up, but how can he when he need never face the consequences of his actions? He throws himself into more and more dangerous situations, desperate to be seen as a hero, but knowing all the while that he’s cheating.
As to where that leads him, well, you will have to read the book to find out. Suffice it to say that I found this book more polished than Everything About You, and quite griping towards the end as Arlo finally finds himself in a position that tests his abilities to the utmost.
Heather and I have had a couple of interesting conversations about this book. She very kindly asked me to interview her for the book launch, and I had her on my radio show a few days later. Our most interesting discussions have focused on the issue of regret.
Regret is certainly an obsession of the modern world. There was no difficulty finding music choices to go with the interview. Popular music is full of songs, the story of which is basically, “I done wrong and my girl has left me.” Arlo, of course, need never regret anything, at least not anything simple. But why are we obsessed with regret, and should we be? I know I’m not.
I, of course, happen to be a member of a group of people who are constantly being told that we should regret our life choices. How could we possibly not do so, given the awful things we have done to ourselves? And yet, the overwhelming majority of trans people do not regret transitioning. If we can avoid the social opprobrium that comes with it, we are almost always much happier afterwards. Maybe I’m an unusual case. Maybe most cis people are consumed with regret.
Maybe it is because I’m old. After a life full of choices, many of which don’t go well, and some of which turn sour even though they seemed absolutely right at the time, perhaps we know that you can’t predict what will happen and should just chill.
Maybe it is a cultural thing. Perhaps, because society is becoming more and more focused on ideas of personal choice, we are becoming more and more obsessed with making the right choices. Maybe the fact that I’m older simply means that I grew up in a time when making the correct life choices was less of a critical issue than it is to young people today.
I’m not sure that this has much to do with Heather’s book. However, the fact that is has sparked such conversations, and meditations, is surely evidence that it touches on some deep and important issues. If you like a book that gets you thinking, The Undoing of Arlo Knott is probably for you.