Caution: Light spoilers.
I read this book weeks ago but haven’t found the time to sit down and write a review about it. Also, I’m not totally sure what I thought about it. I liked it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from a Hugo and Locus award winner. It was pretty short (208 pages in paperback copy, and less than 8 hours in audiobook) and was more or less broken into 3 sections that could have been short stories held together by a common thread. Because it was so short it lacked a lot of detail; each section was separated by years, even decades, and each was told by a different narrator. I related most to the 2nd section, which was the only one to have a female narrator/protagonist, and contained most of the references to reproductive rights and feminism.
The story is about a dystopian world where men and women find themselves increasingly infertile and natural births dwindle to population crushing lows. Somehow, scientific explanations are a little thin, it is discovered that infertility and be restored after a few generations when bodies become able to reproduce sexually once again. In the meantime, scientists begin cloning individuals to flesh out the population and keep the gene pool from becoming too small. People are cloned in batches, so-to-speak, of 4-10 “copies”, and then raised together. What begins to happen is the clones, instead of developing individual personalities, become very hive-minded and begin to turn on those who are not part of clone groups, ie the original non-clone people. The original plan of cloning until sexual reproduction is once again effective goes out the window when the clones reject the idea of sexual reproduction in favour of cloning more people. Because they outnumber the original members of the community, they take control.
The second section of the book begins with 6 clones (each from a different “set” of clones) who go on an expedition to the ruined cities nearby to find new supplies. While on the journey the clones find themselves increasingly affected by the separation from their clone siblings. Molly, the only female, is able to overcome the trauma by turning to her art, sketching in her notebook to make herself feel more comfortable. Upon returning to the clone community, Molly finds she has developed an individual personality and no longer fits in with her siblings. Because of this she is removed from the community and ordered to live alone. While there she discovers she has become pregnant by one of the men on the expedition. She secretly gives birth to her son Mark, who becomes narrator for the 3rd section, and raises him for 5 years before being discovered. Mark is then forcibly removed and Molly is sent to the “breeding quarters” where she is kept in a drugged state for months and subjected to medical testing. This section I found to be the most disturbing as it was quite successful in highlighting the issues surrounding women’s freedom of control over their own bodies in a way that is still very relevant today. The major theme for this novel however was about individuality. Mark is the only individual within a community of clones who are disgusted by him. He is unable to fit in, despite the fact that he is intelligent and creative (albeit a bit of a troublemaker), because he is a single person and not part of his own clone group. As the clone society progresses it proves it’s inability to adapt to changes in the environment and ultimately meets it’s demise as a result of it’s inflexibility.
Overall a thought provoking book that still resonates just as strongly today as it did in 1977. Though I really wish it had been longer and a bit more developed. Very interesting though!