My book club is comprised of approximately six to ten women, almost all of them lawyers (or ex-lawyers) and one electrical engineer. There is almost always a wide range of opinions on the books we read, but the lone engineer is often on her own. She is also the primary motivator in forcing us to occasionally read science fiction. We read Ancillary Justice four years ago on her recommendation, and most recently we read Six Wakes (2017) by Mur Lafferty. Again, this is not a book I’d heard of or would have picked up on my own. I’ve read a couple of really good science-fiction novels that I’ve loved, but for the most part it’s not my genre.
Six Wakes is a story about a crew of six that is running a large transport ship on its way to Artemis, a promising new Earth-like planet, where they are planning on creating a colony. The trip will take several lifetimes, and the cargo hold is filled with thousands of people held in a frozen hibernation state. In this world, cloning has become both scientifically feasible and relatively commonplace. Internationally negotiated codicils govern the ethics surrounding cloning. The entire crew is made up of clones, with plans on creating new bodies when their old ones inevitably die during the long trip.
The book begins with Maria Arena waking up in a cloning vat, blood and gore floating in the air around her, and her dead body across the room. She quickly realizes that the rest of the crew is around her, waking up in their own cloning vats, with their dead bodies nearby. It seems from their aged bodies that they’ve been in space for about twenty-five years, but they have no memory of any of that time. No one has any idea what’s happened, but they know that one or more of them must have been the killer. To complicate things, the ship is not in good working order. The gravity is not working, their mindmaps (backups of the clones’ brains so the new bodies know what’s happened in the past) have been deleted, the cloning bay cannot make any more bodies, the ship is slowing down, and most records have been purged.
The rest of the crew includes: Katrina de la Cruz, the no-nonsense, ex-military, Captain of the ship; Joanna Glass, a doctor and former Senator; Wolfgang, the lunar-born security; Hiro (Akihiro Sato), the pilot and navigator; and, Paul Seurat, the programmer and engineer.
This was a very promising beginning to the novel, and I started reading with high hopes. Unfortunately, I was almost immediately frustrated. The characters felt two dimensional, and I couldn’t understand their motivations at all. In addition, the world did not feel fleshed out in a realistic way. Instead of falling into a creative, alternate reality, I was constantly asking myself why things were happening. It didn’t help that the writing was often unclear or awkward. There was–or what I think was supposed to be–some witty, quirky badinage between Maria and Hiro, but it came off as stilted and odd.
Another early scene that took me out of the book was when the crew hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours after being cloned. They were desperate for food, but Wolfgang and Paul decided to go to the gym where Wolfgang showed off his fitness in a bullying way. Then Joanna accused Wolfgang of being the killer. “You could have lost your temper and pushed us all to perform for you in the gym, and gotten mad and killed us all.” What? Perform for you in the gym? When has that been a valid motivation for murder? Also, why are they going to the gym when they’re hungry and there’s so much else to do? Why did Paul even agree to go?
Unfortunately, I found the end disappointing as well, although it explained a lot of the problems I had throughout the book. For example, why would you put a crew of six criminals in charge of thousands of people? In fact, why would you have a crew at all when you have a computer capable of imitating an entire ecosystem within the ship–including tiny, robotic bees–and is, in fact, in charge as a safeguard. The crew is superfluous and their primary jobs are to take care of each other. If they weren’t there, they wouldn’t be needed. Maria makes food for the six of them, Wolfgang keeps them in check, Katrina leads them, and Joanna doctors them.
In the end, it turns out that a powerful and vindictive woman, Sallie Mignon, came up with the whole thing as a kind of convoluted plot for revenge. She decided that in the world of cloning, simple murder is not the satisfying revenge that she wants. Instead, she wants to “take away their hope.” So, she loads up a spaceship with all of her enemies (not clear how she got her enemies and no one else on there), then sets it up with a crew of criminals that is almost certain to self destruct. The crew slowly figures out that they all have some kind of connection with her and were set up. Apparently Mignon is counting on the crew to kill each other in space and ruin the hopes of everyone aboard? But if she had been successful, the ship would have turned around and come back to Earth. In fact, it almost happened within a year of their departure. Even if the ship had somehow become stranded, how would all the cryo people sleeping on board even know what happened, let alone “lose hope.”
Mignon went to an awful lot of work for a very questionable payoff that might occur in a very long time. If she wanted to punish her enemies, she could torture them, make their bodies disappear, threaten their families, or do what she did to Maria–use her and reclone her without her most recent memories of what she’d done. (This section was the most interesting part of the book for me). In fact, why would hired killers even become a thing in a world where death did not mean anything? Kidnapping would be so much more effective because new clones cannot be made without proof of a dead body.
Paul was the secret weapon sent in with the rest of the crew. He was not a clone and was actually vehemently opposed to clones. I think he had a vague plan of killing all the clones once he was on board the ship–although I don’t know how he could justify putting the thousands of humans in cryo at risk. In fact, Paul had an especially vehement, secret hatred of Maria because during the clone riots, Maria had gone into a building looking to save Sallie Mignon. But as soon as she found her, the building collapsed and everyone died–including the police and firefighters who’d followed Maria to try to get her out of the building. Apparently, these firefighters and police were old relations of Paul and he blames Maria for their deaths. First of all, I don’t know why Maria would even have the memory of going into the burning building and its collapse because she certainly did not have a mindmap made in the seconds before her death. Secondly, police and fire would not simply allow, and then follow, a woman into a dangerous, burning building. They would simply grab her and keep her out of the building. I know Paul’s hatred is not exactly rational, but it’s ridiculous to blame Maria for all the deaths that occurred during the clone riots.
I certainly found this book memorable and easy to write about, but most of this review stems from frustration. Lafferty started with such an interesting premise. I wish she had spent more time creating a world that I could really believe and characters I really cared about. With real motivations and real consequences, I could have really enjoyed this book. 2.5 Stars.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.