The Sudden Appearance of Hope: An SF thriller about self-identity

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North science fiction book reviewsThe Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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.

Published May 17, 2016. My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times. It started when I was sixteen years old. A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger. No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am. That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. When I read your opening paragraph I suddenly understood the title, and I was sold. She writes a lot about the nature of identity, doesn’t she? I will have to start reading her and this sounds like a good introduction.

    It certainly does sound like this has too much exploration in it to meet the pace of a thriller.

  2. Matt W /

    How to write a Claire North book:
    1) Come up with an interesting conceit centered on an individual’s unique ability.
    2) Explore the conceit through flashbacks to various historical and globe-trotting locations, covered in such breathtaking detail that you wonder how Claire North has the time to learn everything about everywhere and everywhen.
    3) Enter another individual with the same ability who can act as a foil.
    4) Chases, violence and hijinks ensue.
    5) Use the thriller milieu to insert stunningly cogent observations about what it means to be human, in community, in love, living, creating meaning, feeling, touching, aging, dying, suffering, in ecstasy, in tears.

    Easy, right? She’s good. She’s so good.

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