A Human's touch

Portsmouth novelist Gillian Fernandez Morton reviews Todd’s debut novel

  • 23 May 2022
  • 5 min read

Olivia Todd, A Human’s Touch (Amazon Kindle, 2021), pp. 91

The possibilities of science fiction

I was very pleased to be given a copy of Olivia’s book. Although science fiction isn’t my favourite genre, I have over the years been intrigued and moved by some memorable books that, while describing some kind of dark and unpleasant future, nonetheless had something useful to say about the present and indeed the past. To mention a few: 1984 by George Orwell of course, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. While imagining a future very different from our own present life it is possible to explore thoughts about the nature of society with the many ways of being human, and also to reflect on the appalling real events of the past – to reflect on humanity’s potential for deceit, greed and hatred, and its capacity for appalling cruelty to others, that have devastated so many lives.

The author

Olivia is a teacher and English Literature graduate from the University of Portsmouth. A talented upcoming poet and novelist, she has published a variety of poems through the Young Poets Network, and ‘The Mermaid of Feegee’in The London Magazine (February/March 2021), and was joint winner of the 2018 MJ Meads Short Story competition.

The novel

Olivia’s highly imaginative story looks into the future, imagining an overpopulated world in the year 3000. Because of a ‘one child policy’, benevolent scientists seek a solution to the implications of this policy for family life. To provide siblings and further children for families, a scientific couple, Indie and Chase, design a ‘synthetic’, but this is not just a robot. Their Sygrowths can grow and develop from something the size of a small baby into an adult with some capacities to feel and think. The couple explained to an interviewer that they:

Did not want people to sacrifice the bonds we develop by growing our families because of that law. So, we created our synthetics to learn like normal humans. We plan to give everyone at least one synth for free. Financial hardships will not exclude families from our creations.

Indie and Chase choose a slightly imperfect one of their small creations, Eden, for themselves but following this benign start to the story, the plot soon darkens. There are destructive forces at work. Other scientists have created a different kind of synthetic, for the purpose of malevolent mass control. As the Sygen Corporation increases its power, all of Indie and Chase’s designed Synths come under threat. The Synths’ capacity to think and feel, and experience genuine attachment to their families, can be seen as a threat to the Sygen Corporation. It can be in some societies in our real world today: societies in which education, a free press, and diversity cannot be tolerated. 

Future visions, present concerns, and echoes of the past

Olivia gives the reader, in small pieces, this information about her world of the distant future, as she introduces her various characters, both human and synthetic, telling the story of several families. I particularly like the way Olivia hints at the development of emotional connections between humans and synths while also describing the limits to what these man-made creations can feel.

In an echo of the one child policy of China, one family secretly have a second human child, but need to keep him hidden. In another family, a newly introduced Synth sibling has to look after the real child when the parents are liquidated by the Sygen destructive agents, the Rounders. The all-seeing eyes of the Sygen Corporation even exert their control through children’s entertainment programmes. In the middle of a Bunny Cartoon show on the futuristic technology in every home, there is an interruption.

All Sygrowth models are banned. The head of Sygen Corporation requests that members of the public co-operate with the members of the police force when they come to collect your models. Once old models have been reclaimed, this procedure shall cease. Thank you.

I felt that in Olivia’s description of this wholesale plan to get rid of the Synths, there was another echo of the past: of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Power of Dystopia

Olivia brings these various threads together, building towards a dramatic climax, where the forces of good and evil clash. Then the question arises: how developed and how resilient is the Synths’ capacity to feel attachments, and will they continue to properly protect the vulnerable, orphaned human children they have been brought up to think of as siblings?

Eden writes an Epilogue in 3999:

Data is corruptible……Sygen had perverted Chase and Indie’s work, twisting it to match their vile vision of our world. Uninhibited by emotion, their synthetics were mindless killing machines…

….You may question why I care. After all, I’m just a synth that embodies a programme designed to learn to express emotions that humans naturally acquire through life. But perhaps that is the very reason why I hope. Perhaps a small part of me cannot help but be moved with compassion for my human counterparts. Chase and Indie made me with love, and I suppose this work is a testament to passing that love onwards. 

If only it can reach the right hands.

Olivia has created a dystopian world but one in which courage, loyalty, affection and attachment continue to try and survive. A Human’s Touch is extremely thought-provoking and I hope it will reach many more hands.

Gillian Fernandez Morton is the author of Bombweed (2018) and Kissed to Death (2021), both of which prominently feature Portsmouth. With roots in Wiltshire and Portsmouth, she has a background in education and educational psychotherapy, and her works all turn to the issue of childhood experience. She lives in London and France but has very strong links to Pompey.