Issue #262 – Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Long time readers of KODT might remember Mur Lafferty’s column Geek Fu Action Grip. Since then she’s made a name for herself in the science fiction field, most recently writing the novelization of the latest Star Wars film: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

But before that she wrote Six Wakes, a fantastic science fiction novel that was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, Hugo Award, and Nebula Award.

Six Wakes starts off with the entire six person crew of an interstellar starship dead, and their cloned replacements waking up to find their own murdered bodies floating around the ship. The ship has lost its gravity, and the crew have no memories about what happened or how they ended up that way. All they know is, one of them has to be the killer.

So, what we have is a locked-door mystery in space, where the victims are also the detectives and the killer is among them. It’s a clever idea to say the least, and the cleverness doesn’t stop there. The ship is a generation ship, en route to colonize an Earth-like world in another system. It carries thousands of cryogenically frozen humans, as well as the minds of thousands of clones who will have new bodies grown once they arrive.

But the ship still needs a crew, and it will take multiple lifetimes to reach its destination. So who do you have man the ship? Criminals who also happen to be clones. Offer them a chance to earn their freedom, a clean slate once they reach their destination, where nobody but themselves will know what they did back on Earth. Right off the bat, not only is everyone a victim, but also an untrustworthy suspect.

In a way the scenario resembles the first Alien film. Six crew members wake up on a long range spacecraft long before reaching their destination. Only in this case what they have to fear isn’t a Xenomorph, but one of their own crew. And despite the fact the two stories are vastly different, that comparison stuck with me throughout this book, because of the dynamics between the crew (ranging from dutiful to self-motivated to secretive), the way they cope with the crisis they find themselves in, and because both stories try to stay grounded in a realistic science fiction world.

(Actually, Six Wakes beats out Alien for realism on a number of fronts, having their ship travel at sub-light speeds and requiring rotation for artificial gravity, for example.)

Cloning, however, is not just a plot gimmick. Most of the story centers heavily on the theme. Through the eyes of these characters we see certain legal challenges faced, as well as illegal uses of the technology. We explore its social and religious ramifications, as well as the kind of ugly compromises you could imagine would be implemented in order for the world to adjust and accept it. This is the kind of thing you expect good science fiction to do, and it does it while always staying tied to the plot.

We also see how clones themselves adapt to their lives after centuries, in a world where death has little meaning, family attachments to non-clones relatives get harder to maintain over time, and grudges don’t necessarily die with death.

In fact, the only complaint I have about the world building is one of perspective. Personally, I don’t see the idea of having a clone continuing my life as immortality… it’s more akin to a different type of offspring, one who is already grown and happens to have all my memories. In this scenario, I am still dead. I do not wake up in that new body. Someone else does. The fact my clone happens to have all my memories does not change the fact that my existence has ended.

In science fiction terms, the element that is missing here is “transference,” that is, the idea of moving one’s mind to the clone, rather than have a copy of it downloaded.

However, as I said before, this is a matter of perspective. I can imagine clones, especially in the long term, would see life differently than we do. I think for each current clone, the perspective is simple: I am all that came before me. The end of me is irrelevant, because the next me will continue on. But even with that point of view, it still feels more like how we view our offspring. For some, children are our own tiny glimpse of immortality.

This is something I would have liked to have seen explored in the story, but it isn’t. However, I think I understand the reason for this.

Science fiction is about ideas, and exploring the ramifications of those ideas. And that’s what Mur does spectacularly. But if you’re going to have a good story, you also have to pick and choose the topics you want to explore. Sometimes you can’t go into every single idea or ramification that crops up, because if you do your story will get swamped in endless digressions.

Ultimately this does not weaken Six Wakes whatsoever. It has great worldbuilding, interesting characters, and an intriguing mystery. I was left wanting more when I was finished, and ultimately that’s the sign of a great novel.

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