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A book review by Steven Wu
November 02, 2001
|Rating: 7 (of 10)|
I want to begin with the problems I had. Kate Wilhelm's book skirts a fine line between science fiction and fantasy. The basic technology she describes--that of cloning--is clearly science fiction, but the extrapolations she makes of this technology--telepathy between clones, increased mania in later generations--veer into fantasy. Unfortunately, when placed in a world that is so clearly supposed to be a reflection of our own, Wilhelm's vaguely fantastic elements are unconvincing. In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the author must quickly establish the basic ground rules of his universe; everything that follows, in order to be plausible, must follow those rules. But because Wilhelm bases her world on our own, I expected certain rules to be followed. But Wilhelm seemed to simply invent phenomena out of nowhere. While this doesn't destroy the novel entirely, it certainly jerked me out of the narrative every time something unexpected (especially some new "fact" about the clones) occurred.
Another weakness in the novel is its episodic structure. The novel is composed of three parts; each one deals with a different generation and has only a little overlap with the other parts. As a result, Wilhelm's book ended up seeming like a collection of three novellas rather than a unified novel. This prevents any real emotional involvement for one character or set of characters. It also highlights Wilhelm's true purpose: getting across her larger points about individuality versus conformity, and the foolishness of man's self-destruction. Unfortunately, unlike Dan Simmon's Hyperion, which uses a similar episodic structure to great effect, none of the individual segments are powerful in and of themselves, and so the novel overall is somewhat bland.
Paradoxically, while the episodic nature of the novel hurt its narrative drive, the lack of clear-cut episodes in the individual parts made most of the action within easy to forget. There are no real scenes here: people go into the forest, or down the river, or into houses, or whatever, but no setting is established, no interaction carefully planned out. I'm not doing a good job explaining this, but a novel like Ender's Game did scenes extremely well: compact, well-described episodes within the narrative bridged by transition material. Here, the transitions and the action seem to run together.
Now for the novel's strengths. Wilhelm's writing is competent at worst and lyrical at best. She writes about emotions and action equally well, a true rarity in any genre. (But for perhaps the best example of her writing, see not this novel but instead her wonderful short story, "Forever Yours, Anna.") A true sign of her skill lies in the opening few chapters of the novel: the tension established between David and Celia is marvelous, and I hoped, as I read those chapters, that this emotional conflict would be the core of the novel. Alas, it was not to be--but I don't want you to underestimate the effect that Wilhelm could have had, if she had only chosen to sustain her narrative for longer stretches.
The third part of the novel (without which this novel's score would be 5, maybe 6) comes close to being a truly great read. It starts off slowly and seems, at first, to aspire to nothing more than "interesting." But, perhaps because this is Wilhelm's longest section, the story of Mark becomes gradually more and more enthralling, and his relationship to the B-brothers (Barry, Ben, Bob, etc.) gives the section an emotional depth that was mostly lacking from the first two parts.
This is probably my worst review yet, but it's late, so that's my excuse. Basically, I found this book a pleasant read, but it wasn't enthralling. You won't hate it, but (except for a couple parts at the very end) this is hardly a page-turner. Slightly recommended.
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