The SFF Librarian Reviews, Mar. 2021
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so every month in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s find strange new worlds together!
It must be an axiom that any work of science fiction involving clones is going to be concerned with issues of human individuality and identity. (Well, maybe not Jurassic Park. Or Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones or, ugh, Rise of Skywalker.) Writers ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin to Lois McMaster Bujold to Kazuo Ishiguro to C.J. Cherryh to Frank Herbert and more, have featured human cloning as a speculative vessel for exploring what makes a human being a real person. If I am duplicated right down to my constituent atoms, am I still me? Is the other me just as much me as I am? Which of us is the truer human being? Both of us? Neither? Which of us “owns” my identity? These are fundamental concerns, calling into question whether an individual self is a real thing or not and whether what we are is made by nature or nurture. The television show Orphan Black (2013-2017) gave us multiple iterations of a woman from a single cell line, but each version very much her own individual person (all brilliantly played by Tatiana Maslany) shaped by her own particular surroundings. At the other end of the spectrum, Ira Levin’s 1976 thriller The Boys from Brazil posited that if you clone enough Adolf Hitlers, the original’s innate evil nature lives within at least some of his duplicates. [Warning: Please do not clone Adolf Hitler.]
What Sarah Gailey has done in their forceful new novel The Echo Wife (Tor, 2021, $24.99) is to graft the kind of probing self-analysis that tales of clones can generate, onto a gripping story of domestic trauma and revenge. In the process, Gailey constructs a new kind of thriller, one that contains all the traditional murder and intrigue and hidden dark psychologies of suburban life, but which uses leading-edge scientific advancements not only as a plot driver but as the vehicle for exploring our innermost human nature, in the best traditions of science fiction.
Gailey’s protagonist is Dr. Evelyn Caldwell, a genius geneticist, recently escaped from an emotionally abusive marriage (reminiscent of her father’s emotional and physical abuse of her and her mother). Evelyn is a pioneer in the field of cloning, not only creating physical duplicates but imprinting them with the original’s memories and behaviors as required. Her estranged husband Nathan has taken a new wife, Martine, and we feel with Evelyn her utter shock in discovering that Martine is, in fact, her clone—secretly grown by Nathan and custom-made to be free of Evelyn’s “faults,” such as independent thinking, the lack of desire to have children, and a failure to overlook Nathan’s intellectual inferiority. It is, both Evelyn and the reader feel, the ultimate violation, the ultimate rejection of Evelyn as an independent human being, the ultimate pronouncement by her abuser that she is somehow wrong. Martine will be the perfect woman that Evelyn never was and never could be (the kind that only exists in the little minds of little men). Martine is even pregnant, something thought to be an impossibility for a clone—a fact that rocks Evelyn to her core:
Clones don’t have families.
But somehow, Nathan—Nathan, the coward, the failure, who had abandoned industry for academia nearly a decade before, who shouldn’t have been able to even approach the level of work I was doing—somehow, Nathan had found a way to undermine that principle. To undermine my principles.
If only it could have been just those things, If it had just been those things, I could have kept my composure. If it had just been those things, I wouldn’t have said what I said.
But no. It was everything, all of it together, all at once…Nathan had created Martine so that he could have a family. I thought he’d given up on all that. But as it turns out, he hadn’t given up on that dream at all. He had just given up on me.
I am not and couldn’t even pretend to ever understand what it must be like to be a survivor of abuse. But Evelyn’s emotional struggle over Martine’s very existence causes her to relentlessly question herself, her behavior, and her past actions, as well as her identity. In questioning the nature of her reality and personhood (as well as that of Martine’s) and the influence of Nathan on both their lives, it seems to me that this internal struggle might be in some ways familiar to abuse survivors. A continual doubt about whether something they did was to blame for whatever violence they suffered. Ongoing unease that something lesser inside them made their abuse somehow justified. Anger that someone chose to see them as an object rather than a person, or a thing to be molded and fashioned into something else to suit the abuser’s needs. Certainly in the novel Nathan treats Evelyn as less like a wife and more like a failed experiment (slight spoiler: the book eventually reveals that Nathan considers Evelyn even more disposable than we at first believe), something to be scrapped and redone. It’s a horrible violation of Evelyn’s sense of herself, abuse made literally present in the person of her clone Martine.
The book is searing, powerful, and disturbing. Gailey expertly paints the picture of two women bound by decisions made outside their knowledge and without their permission, but who at the same moment hold within themselves the real possibility of escape. Can Martine escape her genetically programmed nature and become more than an echo of Evelyn? (Or, put it another way, can Evelyn retain her own identity and not just be a faint echo of what Nathan wants her to be? Who IS the real echo wife here?) Can Evelyn escape the spiral of self-doubt, guilt, and caustic anger that her past has gifted her? Without spoiling the ending, the answer – like so much of life – is inconclusive.
* * *
What a sprawling, sweeping wonder is Master of Poisons (Tor.com, 2020, $27.99) by Andrea Hairston! Of course, epic fantasy has never been the sole province of white authors, even though the popular default for the genre in the West may (since at least Tolkien) have been a magical version of a white-dominant medieval Europe. Nonetheless, I’m gratified and excited to see broader attention paid nowadays to fantasy series with different cultural origins, tropes, and heritages. Works like (just to name a few) Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty epic, R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War chronicle, or Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orisha series—they prove that dragons, knights, stone castles, and elves don’t have a monopoly on exciting and evocative fantasy storytelling. I wish I could say that I was familiar enough with the folklore and cultures of the nations of Africa to catch all the sources of Hairston’s inspiration here and to give Master the deep reading it deserves; however, “not knowing” is hardly the same thing as “not utterly enthralled by.”
The award-winning Hairston constructs here a detailed world set in and around the Arkhysian Empire, a beautifully realized geography beset by a power-hungry religious establishment, barbarians, pirates, strife between distrustful Empire citizens and colonized residents, and most worrisomely, a growing environmental disaster that transforms rich farmland into poisoned desert. The book’s eponymous Master, Djola, has served the Emperor Azizi loyally for years, but he faces his greatest challenge in finding a way to stop the increasing infection of the land and the famine it brings in its wake. We see much of the Empire through Djola’s eyes as in exile he crisscrosses it in search of powerful conjure to end the crisis. On her own journey is Awa, a conjure-woman with the power to travel through the “Smokeland” (the spirit world); she is sold away to a travelling band of conjurers, the Green Elders, to become a griot, a storyteller/keeper of traditions. Between the two of them, we see the length and breadth of the Empire—its mixing of cultures, its different languages and belief systems, the hopes and dreams and loves and desires of its peoples.
Djola and Awa approach the same goal from opposite sides of life: Djola, an angry man living at the height of imperial power, who craves a return to his beloved home and family, growing older and weaker as he voyages. And Awa, a young woman with no family left but that which she makes for herself and who thrives on an inborn connection to the natural world and Smokeland alike. It is in coming together that they can see an end to both their quests: for Djola, to end the poison desert and his exile, and for Awa, a chance to right the myriad wrongs of the world that serve the unjust and the powerful and that make tools of people.
Master of Poisons is not an easy book to read—it’s deep. Hairston’s prose is rich and lyrical, dotted with unfamiliar words and concepts that must be teased from the context. (Yes, there is a glossary at book’s end, but I think the reader will find a deeper, more enjoyable reading experience if they instead work through the text.) But the book is all the better for its complexity. Reading Master of Poisons, to me, was like reading a book of stories translated from another language – you know you may not be catching every cultural and linguistic nuance, but there’s something so appealing about the different rhythms and patterns that it adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the text.
Two passages highlight for me the treasures of reading the book. The opening paragraphs establish it immediately less as a standard novel and more as an extended act of storytelling, of a moral lesson being taught to listeners, of an oral folktale transcribed to paper. (With a pointed implication for our own time.)
We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds. Even in the face of overwhelming destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky? So we twist every story to preserve our faith.
Djola thought to steer the Arkhysian Empire away from this terrible yet mundane fate. He was forty-three, handsome, and fearless—arrogant, even—the Master of Poisons and in the Arkhysian Empire, second only to Emperor Azizi. When poison desert appeared in the barbarian south and the free northland, didn’t he warn Azizi? For twenty years as it crept through river valleys and swallowed forests, Djola pleaded with Council and begged good Empire citizens to change their ways. As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night wind, everybody promised to change—tomorrow or next week. Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust. Good citizens feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible. Who could fight the wind?
The second passage I like because it subtly gives an impression of the multicultural nature of Hairston’s writing and her worldbuilding. In a few short paragraphs, Hairston subtly calls in references to her world’s magical systems, its multiplicity of languages, its history, and its supernatural threats. It’s a beautifully evocative and efficient bit of writing.
The oily expiration of young cathedral trees filled Djola’s mouth. The grove must be around the next bend, beyond a rocky outcropping. New red leaves fluttered in the wind, catching the last of the sun. Trunks and ferns undulated in the shadows, a trickster’s dance. Gray forms with granite teeth, smoky hair, and spark hearts floated between the trees. Haints.
Djola’s breath grew shallow; his eyes burnt with unspent tears…Using Samina’s spell to open a wise-woman corridor had been foolhardy, and then singing from The Songs for Living and Dying…Bold haints broke from the forest of shades and taunted him for reckless conjure, whispering with the leaves.
“How else could we escape the deluge?” He yelled in Anawanama, what his mother’s people used, before the Empire and after, to talk to the stars and trees, to ancestors and spirits. “I couldn’t choose death on the Narrows Bridge. Not time yet.”
“Why shout in words nobody remembers?” the transgressor girl asked in Empire vernacular—once a minor trading language and these days filling everyone’s mouth.
“I remember,” he replied in Empire talk, glad to focus on her. “We’re not all dead to this world.” The transgressor girl twisted around to face him. Haints ventured closer. He almost made out a round familiar face. The crack in his heart throbbed. “So much I cannot say or see unless I speak Anawanama.”
“Ancestor tongues conjure other worlds.” The girl followed his gaze. “What?”
* * *
A History of What Comes Next (Tor.com, 2021, $24.99) by Sylvain Neuvel is an unusual book: it’s an action thriller wrapped around a chewy center about the power of choice and determinism in governing our lives. The first in Neuvel’s Take Them To The Stars series, the novel opens with a quote from Carl Sagan: ‘All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct.” That stark observation has real relevance in this novel, particularly for the Kibsu, the secret line of women that for 99 generations have hidden among the mass of humanity and passed from mother to daughter the dark commandment: Take them to the stars…before Evil comes and kills them all. This charge – its origins lost in the shadowy mists of millennia – drives the Kibsu to make savagely ruthless and fatal decisions over the course of history so that humanity will bend towards developing spaceflight. The women of the Kibsu govern themselves through a series of ironclad precepts (such as Preserve The Knowledge, Don’t Leave A Trace, Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself, and, most tragically, as readers will see, There Can Never Be Three For Too Long) that, as protagonist Mia finds, inevitably trap Kibsu women into a never-ending cycle of birth, growth, reproduction, and death, with no room for a life or role outside the ultimate rule.
When the book opens, humanity has arrived at a critical inflection point. It is the end of World War II, and Mia is assigned by her mother Sara to extract Wernher Von Braun from the disintegrating Nazi Germany and spirit him to the United States in order to launch the American rocketry program. Those rockets will, of course, touch off an American-Soviet arms race and finally result in manned space programs. And those programs will, if we are to believe the Kibsu’s mission, save humanity from an unnamed menace. Certainly, the stakes for the Earth could not be higher.
But things are less simple than they may appear. Like the best spy novels (and Sara and Mia are certainly heirs to the literary tradition of brave and resourceful espionage heroes), What Comes Next asks the question of its readers: are the ultimate ends worth the means needed to achieve them? Spies in literature assault and murder enemies and innocents alike by the bushel to protect their countries, their citizens, and their ‘freedoms’, but at what moral cost? Both Sara and Mia are forced to murder more than one person merely because they have left traces of their activities – is the loss of innocent life to preserve one’s own because of the “greater good” an acceptable trade? (In a powerful entr’acte flashback, a Kibsu mother-daughter pair in the Netherlands in 1608 ends up having to massacre an entire village, and an innocent witch hunt victim, to cover their tracks. Do Not Draw Attention to Yourself.)
Much of the book involves Mia’s own doubts about not only what generations of tradition have determined she must do, but whether she is entitled to have her own life, her own loves, her own destiny. She chafes at the restrictions laid upon her that she must follow her mother’s orders, give birth to a daughter of her own (the Kibsu always bear daughters), lose her mother, and invariably die as the end of yet another generation of Kibsu. Tradition, even that laid down to guarantee survival, can be a dead hand, laid upon a life and rendering it dry, joyless, and a constant recycling of what has gone before. Even when Kibsu DO make choices, they must keep them hidden and forever subservient to the mission; they must swallow their own doubts about the worth of that mission. Sara muses at one point:
I hardly recognize the world anymore. My daughter is running from her duty. Her mind is troubled, and I cannot blame her for it. It would be difficult, with the evidence at hand, to reach a different conclusion. The world as it is does not beg saving.
I watch Mia suffer and I wish I could make it stop. I feel the guilt Hsue-shen spoke of. I thrusted my daughter into a life she did not choose, as my mother did with me. We were never asked to be who we are. Whatever choice we made, it happened long before Mia was born. Perhaps I should have let her make it again.
I know now why my grandmother hid her climate research from everyone. I know what she did not tell a soul. She was ashamed. She did not fear that our efforts were in vain if the planet was doomed. She would have shared that thought, like my mother did. She hoped the planet was dying. She was looking for a way out…She wanted to stop. She did not want her daughter, her granddaughter to carry our burden. She wanted to live, and for her child to have a normal life.
How do we live if circumstances dictate that we are bound to a life we did not choose for ourselves? That is only one of the questions Neuvel asks in this novel; whether subsequent books in the series will have an answer, remains to be seen.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. The author and editor have worked together in the past on another publication. No review copies were arranged by ARB.
The cover image is by Tomáš Matouš.