The Family Experiment: A Novel

Image of The Family Experiment: A dark and twisted thriller about virtual parenthood from the acclaimed author of The One and The Marriage Act
Release Date: 
July 9, 2024
Hanover Square Press
Reviewed by: 

"The Family Experiment is first-rate and highly readable, science fiction with a heart and soul."

British writer John Marrs’ The Family Experiment is science fiction, but there are no rocket ships or phasers in sight. It’s a quite plausible vision of the near-future that artificial intelligence and virtual reality are creating for us. Add in the excesses of reality television and you have pretty fair ingredients for a great story.

The book doesn’t dwell on the conditions that created this, but it has become prohibitively expensive to support a child, with the result that parents in Britain are surreptitiously selling off their offspring, who are then taken across the Channel in leaky boats to new lives in Europe. Those who survive the crossing, anyway. To cash in, Awakening Entertainment (AE) creates a compelling TV show. On The Family Experiment, 11 contestants (five couples and one single man) will each raise a virtual child in the Metaverse, with the public watching and judging their parenting skills. It’s all in aid of AE selling boatloads of Meta Children down the road.

The story is told in chapters focused on the contestants. At first, with so many protagonists, the reader will find it hard work to sort everybody out, but once their stories are known everything settles into place. A few entrants drop out early, but staying the course are Woody and Tina (whose secret is in the basement), Hudson (out to prove a child can thrive when raised by a single parent), Cadman and Gabriel (one in it for the money, the other for love), and Dimitri and Zoe (still grieving the loss of their real-world child).

Marrs is quite adept at revealing small dollops of information about the contestants, right at the chapter’s end. Wait, what? The public’s enthusiasm for each player waxes and wanes, but the show is a hit worldwide. The prize is either keeping your virtual child forever or getting the means to raise a real one. Well, that and the lucrative marketing deals that Cadman is adept at arranging.

Sordid stuff happens. A baby is shaken to death. Well, a baby made of pixels. A couple separates. The contest goes on. The text is enlivened with found items: news stories, press releases, comments from websites. “I am seriously crushing on Hudson right now. Staying with [fake daughter] Alice while she has chicken pox, wandering around New York talking to her about anything and everything. Wish I had a dad like that #DevotedDad.”

New York? The real world might be an apartment in London, but the Metaverse can take you anywhere. The whole thing sounds pretty appealing. “Here at Awakening Entertainment we have developed a fully immersive experience for those who want to start a family, without the Real World constraints, for a fraction of the cost and within a safe environment.” Don the haptic suit, and your created child will feel just like an actual one. And raising them isn’t a long-term provision: The kids grow to 18 over just one year.

Marrs is a fine writer with an inventive mind. Comparisons to the great Philip K. Dick are apt. In the 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which became the film Blade Runner) Dick imagined a near-future world in which real pets are worth mega-bucks, so people pretend to have them with robotic substitutes. Like many of the scenarios in Marrs’ book, it’s not that far-fetched: Robotic dogs are actually popular in Japan. Aibo, for instance, can be potty trained, and “is just as playful as a regular puppy, minus the shedding.” Aibo won’t bother the neighbors with barking—that can be programmed right out.

The heart of the book is the interaction between the couples, and Marrs gets that right, too. Even though the book’s ending is a bit cartoonish, for the most part these are believable people in real situations, and the dialogue crackles. “Cadman,” Gabriel sighs. “Can’t we just enjoy the moment [child River is just starting to crawl] without trying to monetize it?” Cadman is oblivious. “If we can encourage him to keep moving around the house, everything he passes will have the description appear on screen,” he says. “New curtains, blinds, artwork, rugs, digital photo frames. Our son has just opened a whole new world of opportunity for us.”

The kids growing up in the Metaverse aren’t really developed as characters, but there’s too much else going on to notice. Many of these “parents” are hiding something—their pasts, inconvenient children—but it’s all going to come out before an international audience of billions, isn’t it? The ending is a surprise, but Marrs has carefully laid the groundwork for it.

The Family Experiment is first-rate and highly readable, science fiction with a heart and soul.