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Six Wakes

June 4, 2018

34444440_10216506731890862_611931478451814400_nThis weekend we were in Louisiana for Walker Percy weekend. It’s the fifth one, and was just as fun as the first, especially because we know more people who come now. We saw Alice, Mary Pratt, and Callie and met two new people who came with them. We saw Rick and Tammy and met some of their friends. We saw the older lady from Oklahoma who has a son-in-law who went to Kenyon. We saw a young man who came for the first time last year and came back this year with his fiancee a week before their wedding. We missed our friends from British Columbia, who used to win the prize for coming the longest way. I got to make my annual Walker Percy-derived joke, announcing to different groups that “we’re the Ohioans.” We talked to John Rhu and we listened to Mary Pratt, who is Walker Percy’s daughter, and Huger, who is Shelby Foote’s son, talk about what it was like to grow up with their famous fathers who were friends for 60 years. We sat in the local bookstore, The Conundrum, and read some of Jessica Hooten Wilson’s book, Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. I bought postcards at a local shop called Grandmother’s Buttons. We drank a citrusy gin and bourbon mixture called “the Binx Bolling” on Friday and three different kinds of bourbon cocktails before eating crawfish on Saturday.

34534747_10214723938245162_8823340595381534720_nSunday morning we met some friends for breakfast at a wonderful place called The Ruby Slipper where we ordered several different kinds of eggs benedict. We were having our usual kind of “cabbages and kings” conversation, as one of them calls it, so we took it back to their house, where their very affectionate standard poodle climbed on my lap. As many of my friends know, I’ve always been a little afraid of dogs, but this dog and I adore each other. I cannot tell you why; it could just be that I adore everyone in this family.

I had brought some books to give them, books I thought they might especially like, and they had books for us. Now get this–this is how great my friend Jenny is as a gift-giver–she came prepared with alternative books if I’d already read any of the books she’d picked out (which I had, because she had already raved about Borderline and I read anything she raves about).

One of the books she gave me was Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. (Like Autonomous, it was nominated for this year’s Nebulas.) I started reading it at the airport in Baton Rouge, kept reading it during our flight to Atlanta, and finished it as we started our descent into Columbus. It was an ideal airplane book, a page-turner, but also full of interesting ideas that I could mull over while navigating crowded walkways.

As I began reading, I entered the spaceship, a “generation ship” headed to a distant planet, seeing it from the point of view of Maria, identified as the ship’s “maintenance-slash-junior-engineer” who has just woken up in a new clone body with no memory of the past decades and surrounded by the dead bodies of the other crew members. Even the ship’s AI has no memory of what happened; all they get from it is “my speech functions are inaccessible,” which is, as the pilot and navigator, Hiro, points out, kind of like the Magritte painting with the label “ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

Maria has woken up in a new body before; usually “she had been in bed after illness, age, or, once, injury. The helpful techs had created a final mindmap of her brain, and she had been euthanized after signing a form permitting it. A doctor had approved it, the body was disposed of neatly, and she had woken up young, pain-free, with all her memories of all her lives thus far.” We’re told that “some other times hadn’t been as gentle” but don’t think much of it, at this point, any more than we wonder whether each of the crew members, in a crew that we know is comprised entirely of clones, has woken up in a new body before.

As a reader, I got “six wakes,” which means the six crew members’ points of view on their waking. Hiro remembers what happened before current laws concerning cloning were in effect, when “bathtub babies was the term for children born with undesirable genes, the wrong gender, or a disability. The parents would record the DNA matrix and the mindmap, then pay extra for a hacker to change the gender or disability, or even–he remembered with discomfort–to make a mixed-race baby favor one parent’s race over the other’s….The really good ones could modify a sociopath, I heard.”

We hear Joanna, the ship’s doctor, saying that, with cloning “life became so cheap….Euthanize yourself and just skip over terminal illness. Rage Kiddies inventing impossible sports, taking massive risks with their lives because who cares?”

And we hear Katrina, the captain, replying that “life was always cheap, wasn’t it? People stabbed each other for video game loot. Shot each other for traffic violations. Political assassinations. Corporate assassinations. I think cloning actually made us appreciate it more because it was in plentiful supply.”

We gradually find out that each crew member is acquainted in some way with a rich and influential clone named Sallie Mignon, who once asked Katrina: “how does one exact revenge on people who are incredibly wealthy and do not fear death?” We find out more about the crew member’s relationships to each other as they continue to piece together the story of what has happened on the ship. One of the things they discover is that a clone can be duplicated against his will and implanted with selected memories that are not his own: “they’re calling it yadokari, the act of putting something inside someone’s brain to live there, like a hermit crab.” Among the other things they discover is that one crew member used to be an outspoken hater of clones, “from a long line of firefighters and police officers…who died during the clone riots” while another used to preach against clones, saying “I believe it is not murder to remove from this world a man or woman who is not a child of God, whose soul cannot ascend.”

When the clone crew member who used to preach against the practice tells his story and adds that he still believes that “we’re not meant to be God….the act of cloning is against His will,” the doctor loses her temper, pointing out that:
“We played God when people believed they could dictate their baby’s gender by having sex in a certain position. We played God when we invented birth control, amniocentesis, cesarean sections, when we developed modern medicine and surgery. Flight is playing God. Fighting cancer is playing God. Contact lenses and glasses are playing God. Anything we do to modify our lives in a way that we were not born into is playing God. In vitro fertilization. Hormone replacement therapy. Gender reassignment surgery. Antibiotics. Why are you fine with all of that, but cloning is the problem?”

As the novel winds towards its end the revelations come faster, one opening out from another, until everything is perfectly clear except that the revenge plot is going to play out like its originator intended. The most important thing that the crew of the ship recreates in the process of discovering what happened and why is their own free will.

It was the perfect book with which to end a perfect weekend.

Update: I forgot to tell you the Walker Percy quotation we put on Ron’s shirt and my messenger bag this year: “Nowadays there is no piece of nonsense that will not be believed by some and no guru or radio preacher, however corrupt, who will not attract a following.”

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2018 5:11 pm

    You know, as a reader, my favorite moment of a book may be the moment at which the title suddenly makes sense. I just hit that point with your gift, Arcanos Unraveled. Such a fun book – my daughter the knitter (Legsl Sister) may get an unexpected gift soon! We enjoyed your visit tremendously, per usual!

    • June 4, 2018 7:59 pm

      Oh! It’s you! I’ve had no idea who julianswindow was for a little while; although the voice did sound familiar, I couldn’t place it.
      Yes, a point at which the title suddenly makes sense is a great moment, and it doesn’t always happen–it’s not the same as a “title drop” which doesn’t always entail any additional understanding.
      We enjoyed the visit tremendously, too. You may have noticed I use your phrase about the conversation. There were other places I wish it had gone; I meant to bring up Black Sails, for instance, but we ran out of time.

      • June 10, 2018 12:27 pm

        DAMMIT I can’t believe I didn’t take the opportunity to talk about Black Sails with you. WHO EVEN AM I.

        Anyway, I’m really glad you liked Six Wakes. My friends who’ve read it so far have had very mixed (sometimes very negative) reactions to it, and I was a little worried that you would scorn it. But it really is a perfect vacation book (although I don’t necessarily know that it’s Hugo Award material).

        • June 10, 2018 5:29 pm

          So, next time, Black Sails discussion. I’m trying to get Eleanor to watch it now.
          She read Six Wakes and also liked it a lot. Score two for your skill in gift-giving!

  2. June 5, 2018 12:22 pm

    Wow! So many thoughtful observations and questions this book poses! I’m fascinated just by what you shared. I am so glad that you had a great Walker Percy weekend. It sounds like a lovely time. I still have one of his books on my Classics Club list (The Last Gentleman.) I read a enjoyed The Moviegoer. And mmmm… bourbon cocktails!

    • June 5, 2018 3:08 pm

      The Last Gentleman is a classic now!
      My favorite of his novels is Love In the Ruins. (Because it’s satiric.) It’s so apt for today, which is what made me think of the quotation and update the post to include it. (But the quotation is from one of his non-fiction books, The Message in the Bottle.)

  3. June 5, 2018 3:47 pm

    That sounds like a wonderful weekend and a wonderful friend! I’m not sure Six Wakes is for me but I love that it’s so thought provoking.

    • June 5, 2018 3:55 pm

      She is a wonderful friend; it’s Jenny from Reading the End. Book bloggers are some of the best friends!

  4. June 6, 2018 8:39 am

    I’m intrigued by your review of Six Wakes–think it’s my cup of tea? You tend to have a decent idea of what I will/won’t like.

    • June 6, 2018 8:48 am

      I do think you would like it. I also really think you would like Autonomous, especially because the writing style is less novelistic, a little like a scientific report.

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