Review – The Uncanny Valley – By Erin Cairns

There are several ways to approach describing THE UNCANNY VALLEY, and any one of them is simultaneously sufficient, yet lacking.  

Do you want a story about androids fighting for acceptance within a society that created and rejected them? A philosophical examination of post-industrial capitalism? A reflection on policing, and cultures of power and protection? A deeply flawed man’s painful first steps on a journey to become something of a better person? Well, those are all themes that Cairns interrogates and (occasionally uncomfortably) asks the readers to reflect on. The subtext, the motifs, the soul of the book is deep.

The plot is also punchy as hell, a thriller with pace and energy and guts that demands you keep turning the pages. Once the mystery starts to layer, the book really begins to rip. So if you’d prefer a protagonist with a penchant for rolling nat-0 wisdom checks as he tries to punch his way to a truth he never thought he’d have any reason to seek? Well, get ready for a helluva ride.

Tyler Shaw is a detective in what reads as a fictional American analogue city. The development of androids led to an economic boom, but a virus that granted them sentience spread to turn androids from simple tools into… what exactly the society and the characters are dealing with, and now the economic collapse has hollowed out the city (we can’t exactly keep manufacturing people… not really, right?). Shaw is working homicide when an android ends its existence (dies by suicide? The way the characters wrestle with applying human language and convention to non-human actors bleeds from the page into the reader, and here’s an example) in a public way–and possibly at Shaw’s prompting–he finds himself embarking on figuring out why. Why would an android end itself (himself? the way that Shaw engages with the pronouns of android characters is important and not at all a blunt object of modern pronoun discourse)? Why would that android do any of the things he did? And why does this feel like there’s far more going on than a malfunctioning android?

There’s a few things about the content that bear addressing. Shaw isn’t cuddly. He’s not a boy scout. He’s a deeply, profoundly, flawed person. There’s no turning away from the ways his flaws code onto real world problems. What Cairns does, should you give her the trust necessary to read this book, is guide Shaw not from flawed to perfect, but from flawed to better. The flaws are just that, flaws. They’re consistently aspects of his character that stand in the way of his goals, they don’t aid him. A surface level read of his character shows him to be “problematic,” but that is obviously the point. The point is the journey.

Similarly, there’s no evading the fact that Shaw is a cop. There are some for whom anything with cops is bad (which is FINE, there’s plenty of books out there for you). But rest assured this is not a fictional hagiography of police or policing. Far, far from it. And, to that end, if you are a reader for whom anything critical of police or policing is a problem, there’s plenty of great fiction for you too. I think, however, for people willing to engage with the gray in the middle of the spectrum, they’ll be well-rewarded.

UNCANNY VALLEY asks a lot of questions about agency, identity, and the changing world, and doing so it asks the reader to engage as well. There’s a cracking mystery with betrayal and stunning revelations beneath the constant threats that turn this into a gripping thriller. It’s well worth your time to read.

Buy it here: Amazon