Book Review: The Stray by Jason Ford

One of the things I love about science fiction that speculates on the potential future is that there are so many possibilities, so many different choices that could change the future and the entire world. Whether that be post-apocalyptic sci-fi, utopian sci-fi, the rise of technology, the fall of technology, disease, famine, whatever, there are so many different ways that things could go wrong. Or, alternately, ways that they could go right. Jason Ford’s The Stray is a musing on a world following the rise of AI, and what it means to be human.

1. Thoughts on the plot

A lot of contemporary futuristic/fate of the world sci-fi is very action oriented. The character has a particular goal, either to improve the world or to get back to the way things were. This book is more about a mental journey by means of character interaction, which I think was very interesting indeed. 

This book follows Ethan, a worker at a Water Recycling Plant who gets selected to participate in a sleep study where an AI analyses his dreams. For thirty days, he lives in a house and helps the AI to learn about humanity. During this time, Ethan interacts with people from his past, memories he thought long forgotten, and the ever-present question of what it means to be human. 

While there is little direct action in this book, I think that the plot is actually very rich. The interactions between characters determine choices and push both Ethan and the AI into a sequence of events that may, in fact, change everything, or change nothing at all.

2. Thoughts on the characters

As far as characters go, I like Ethan. He is not hugely go-get-em at the beginning of the book, and starts off maybe a bit boring. He is this way due to situations in his past, with his ex-girlfriend Cameron, who was something like his opposite, but not quite. Therefore, the decision to apply for this sleep study is actually a huge leap forwards for Ethan, and leads to an ever increasing pace to discover the meaning of life as a human. He delves into philosophy, remembering character interactions, and also experiencing new things that essentially change him from someone who accepts things to someone who seeks things out. A very good main character.

The other primary characters in the novel, with whom Ethan interacts, include his ex, Cameron, a friend, Jimmy, and the scientists running the sleep study. These characters are hugely significant in terms of plot, but none of them have quite the depth that Ethan has. I think, overall, that this works out very well, since it is Ethan we’re focusing on. As individual characters, separate from the plot, I think they don’t quite fit the mold. Frankly, though, it doesn’t much matter as they suit the story perfectly well.

3. Favourite part

I liked the discussions of philosophy quite a bit. Now, I think there were some points in the philosophical musings that could have used slightly more clarification (namely in the last five percent of the book), but even ambiguous, they push the boundaries of reality and force questions of what really matters in life. I really enjoyed this, since a lot of the time, we see AI in sci-fi with single-minded focus rather than a search for greater meaning. That, and the fact that these discussions played such a large role in Ethan’s character development made this more than something incidental in the story, to something essential.

4. Critique

My only real critique for this book has nothing to do with the characters or the story, but with the formatting. There were instances in the book where dialogue spoken by two separate characters appeared in the same paragraph, sans dialogue tags. Now, I was able to generally decipher who was saying what, but it took me out of the story and required a bit more puzzling than I had anticipated. This isn’t a huge issue, since the story was clear even with this formatting quirk, but I did notice it.

I think that The Stray was a very good story about what the role of humans is in a world where we are perhaps not entirely relevant, where AI manages a great deal and people do not need to strive to reach such great heights any longer. I especially liked the philosophy, the drive that Ethan had to choose his path, and all the questions that were brought up by a world where the problems we face are all but solved.