Edison in the Hood
(Apperception Press, 2022)
This review is being written shortly after the apparent apex of social media’s “Lensa” moment, an apt time to be reading Nadia Uddin’s tech-centered debut novel Edison in the Hood. Lensa (for the non-Instagrammers among us) is an app that uses artificial intelligence to generate portraits based on uploaded imagery. Like many technological novelties, it was an instant hit and engendered equally-instant controversy. This dual reaction is similar to what one might experience in reading Edison in the Hood, which depending on headspace might strike us as expansive or scattered, playful or corny, profound or opaque.
It takes place in Los Angeles of the year 2030, and is narrated predominantly from the respective vantage points of two siblings named Aisha and Sam. The novel opens at a signal moment for both of them: their mother passes away on page four just as Aisha is entering into a new job working for the title character Jay Edison (a tech savant in the manner of Ray Kurzweil), all while Sam has begun flirting with the prospect of joining a radical anti-technologist political movement. In the wake of her mother’s passing, Aisha’s new employer offers her the opportunity to participate in the “Brain Reinvigoration Project,” a fledgling service that can sporadically re-animate the brains of the recently deceased, enabling loved ones to reenact or revise their final deathbed conversations. Aisha accepts this offer, regarding it as an opportunity to forge (or force) a reconciliation between Sam and their late mother, who had long been estranged from one another. The novel’s central question is thus posed to us early and explicitly: “if artificial intelligence had the potential to solve the world’s most challenging problems, why couldn’t it fix difficult family relationships?”
Inherent in this premise is one aspect of what makes Edison in the Hood feel refreshing, which is its commitment to exploring the intersections of both technological advancement and the supple human psyche. The story unfolds amidst a world of compelling innovation, and yet much of its tension centers around the age-old dilemma of familial relationships. It deftly renders the subtle sibling-failures of both Sam and Aisha, failures that stem largely from their mutual mis-attunement to one another. When Aisha visits Sam still reeling from their mother’s death (“an embrace from him was all she needed”), she finds herself presented not with a hug but with a cold probiotic smoothie. Conversely, Sam appears able neither to escape nor to challenge the judgmental gaze of his sister, who seems more interested in altering than in understanding Sam’s less conventional lifestyle.
This is an intriguing set of circumstances, one that the novel complements with much else of immediate appeal. It strikes an engagingly irreverent tone, abounds in imaginative detail, and from the get-go makes clear its ability to tackle weighty subject matter without self-aggrandizement. As a general principle, the novel feels most thrilling when it manages to surprise us, as it does in chapter four, when the sound of a glass being crunched by a passing vehicle triggers a flashback sequence in which Aisha attempts to impress a romantic interest with her car, but instead fells a homeless pedestrian. This flashback is jarring and vivid: we see the “piercing headlights,” the man’s “bacteria-laden sweat,” the “fetal position” in which he lay on the pavement. Panic-stricken, Aisha offers to help but finds her assistance rebuffed: “I don’t need your help!” says the man, prompting the memory to echo resonantly against Aisha’s previously-depicted interactions with Sam. Aisha becomes instantly more whole to us, more human, more desperate.
We thus read on excitedly. Yet in doing so, as the chapters pass by, and as Brain Reinvigoration becomes but one small component of the novel’s complex milieu, we are apt to begin questioning its ability to deliver on its lofty twofold ambitions. Issues stem primarily from the novel’s narrating perspective: its world is presented to us only through the filtering minds of its characters, an aesthetic decision that can sometimes prompt what feel like stilted trains of thought, mental segues that seem externally engineered for the purpose of bolstering setting. One such segue occurs when Aisha, mere moments after sobbing over the dissolution of her marriage, looks upward and takes note of the ceiling, “which she noticed was enhanced with elegant crown molding.” Sam behaves similarly when he halts an internal diatribe to explain to us the exact futuristic manner in which he’s disposing of his recyclables. In moments like these, we might reasonably infer that the novel’s commitment to setting is actually distancing us from its characters. We might also begin to feel lonely, sitting there, reading about but barred from experiencing Sam and Aisha in all their psychic suppleness. When they eventually reconcile, we might feel excluded from the reconciliation.
In its entirety, the novel manages to cover a great swath of dramatic ground: a divorce, a courtship, a drive-by shooting, a mistaken racial identity, and more. Yet what ultimately feels most memorable are the book’s world-building nuances: the brain reinvigorations, the robot-servants, the general fun and discomfort of picturing oneself in a world that grants its inhabitants such overwhelming power. In this way, the novel succeeds in encapsulating what makes technological innovation so seductively troubling. It excites us—and then we start asking questions. Above all, then, Edison in the Hood is for those of us craving that exact parabola of emotion.