The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the first in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells.
“All right, who did you become?” Maria asked as her door closed behind her with a whooshzz. She faced her rooms. It was an odd, ghostly feeling, missing so many years. She saw signs of herself everywhere, but someone who was a different person than she was now. She found herself mourning the dead woman, the Maria who would be remembered by no one.
It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt why Mur Lafferty won the 2013 John W. Campbell award. This woman can write!
In Six Wakes she’s set herself to a true challenge: to write a closed room murder mystery in space with clones that doesn’t get too pulpy, nor too dry, nor too “whodunit”, nor predictable. Without giving it all away, the story was so engrossing I never once stopped to try and tease out how it would all wrap up. (Ok, I did once. But that was just because one of the characters said something so painfully irritating I shut the book and thought “Mur, I hope [redacted] turns out to be the bad guy,” but that’s hardly the same thing.)
Lafferty makes a number of references to traditional scifi (and particularly clone-related) without ever making anything seem trope-y. From one of the clones testing a food synthesizer with a cracker (the “hello world” of printed food), to Hiro mourning the loss of a pastime he’s never really experienced,
“Hiro missed swimming … The last time he went swimming, according to his memory, was a week ago. But this body had never touched a pool or ocean, and probably never would.”
Lafferty proves she’s got the scifi chops to carry this hefty story.
And then she takes it and makes it her own.
It’s not enough for her to use a traditional and elegant technique like Hiro missing swimming. She then seamlessly pivots that moment on swimming into a drowning metaphor for dissociation and inattention, in an arrestingly beautiful coup. This, then, carries the reader through Hiro’s initial struggle with the reality he’s woken up to.
Throughout Six Wakes, Lafferty uses time as a strategic device to deepen and enrich almost every aspect of the story and the reader’s experience. Her skillful use of this device runs the gamut from traditional leaps (both fluid and jarring) between timelines, to the palpable and frantic time-crunch the clones are under, to subtle context clues and details that simultaneously keep readers present and leave us unsure of reality (just like her characters). She even uses the same subtle techniques to disorient readers as she uses to show when the clones are disoriented. And she plays out the discovery of the timeline (the solving of the murders) “in real time” if you will – the characters both learn as we learn and reason as we reason, cementing our feeling of being part of Lafferty’s crew on the Dormire.
And, like all great scifi writers Lafferty invites the reader to participate in a discussion about humanity and morality that winds as a constant thread throughout every POV and every timeline in Six Wakes. I sincerely hope that, when it comes time for humans to develop laws that integrate long-lived clones into society as citizens, this book is used to inform those decisions. Lafferty’s treatment of moral questions in cloning are inspiring and perfectly grounded in both today’s morality and tomorrow’s science.