Mur Lafferty’s 2017 Six Wakes is a standalone science fiction mystery novel.
To have one crew-member murdered may be regarded as a misfortune; to have the entire crew murdered looks like carelessness.
Happily for Maria Arena and the rest of the crew of the interstellar ship Dormire, death is a temporary condition. Maria wakes in a cloning pod, as expected. What is not expected: she is still in the pod. Someone should have released her. Oh, and she can see globules of blood floating in freefall outside her container.
It only gets worse.
Whoever murdered the crew (save for Hiro, whose previous iteration appears to have committed suicide) also sabotaged the cloning facility and the mindmaps contained therein. All of the clones — Maria, Paul Seurat, Wolfgang whose surname escapes me, Joanna Glass, Katrina de la Cruz, and Akihiro Sato — have memories a generation out of date. The ship’s AI has also been attacked and is currently offline. The ship is off-course. The killer even sabotaged the food synthesizer, which now prints out only hemlock.
Because there is no calamity so bad it cannot be made worse, Katrina’s previous clone was not murdered, merely battered into a coma, which puts the revived Katrina in violation of Earth’s draconian clone laws.
Dormire is a generation and three light-years into its voyage to the habitable planet orbiting Tau Ceti1. The killer must have been someone on board Dormire. None of the passengers on the ship are suspects: two thousand of them are stored in cold-sleep and another five hundred are present only as stored mindmaps. Whoever the killer was, it was one of the six clone crew-members.
Nobody is above suspicion. Dormire’s backers had adopted a novel solution to the problem of crewing a vessel that would take a century to reach Tau Ceti. They hired criminals desperate for a second chance, even if it meant repeated death and revival via cloning. While the exact nature of each clone’s crimes is secret, the fact that they were all criminals is not. Paranoia is only rational.
With memories almost a quarter century out of date and with no surviving records of the days leading up to the slaughter, the clones are at a loss. Even the killer has no idea who the killer was. Nobody can know if the slaughter was a momentary aberration or if they need to worry about another massacre. They do know that the killer managed to sabotage the cloning facility; the last round of clones is the final round of clones. The next time death comes, it will be permanent.
What are the odds I would read two books back to back that both feature spacecraft with sails? And that both would be published by Orbit Books?
Nitpicks first: I am not sure the performance of Dormire’s propulsion system, a “mile square solar sail” and engines, type unspecified, is reasonable. The sail is of the magnetic variety and much smaller than currently proposed sails for probes of more modest mass than the Dormire. Even within the solar system, the thrust from sunlight would be tiny; outside our solar system, thrust would be minuscule (lacking a propulsion beam). As for the cloning: I doubt that any technology could pull a mindmap out of any part or product of the body that isn’t the brain (genetic memory, as hypothesized in the classic novel Dune, is pure nonsense).
I think I remember someone claiming that an author could still attain suspension of disbelief (SOD) as long as they postulated only one or two implausibilities. As long as everything else seemed rational. So I give this book a pass on the technology SOD-meter.
The setting … well, it’s kinda plausible. Earth is trying, somewhat ineffectively, to cope with anthropogenic climate change. Things are not bad enough that interplanetary and interstellar exploration and colonization are impossible, but they are sufficiently unpleasant that rich people have commissioned a starship to take them to a pristine world. The clone laws are are clearly the product of negotiation and compromise, barely acceptable but in no sense perfect. Things are not as dystopic as they could be in a world with mindmaps, mind-hacking, and clones. Only criminals subject others to cycles of torture, murder, and reincarnation. It’s not government policy.
What did seem implausible was the novel’s treatment of religion. Which was sufficiently odd that even I (known snarky agnostic) noticed it. Lafferty pictures the world’s religions as agreeing on many substantive matters, including the status of clones. Given the notorious fissiparous nature of religious organizations (splitting on finer and finer points of doctrine), I suspect that religious attitudes towards clones would be all over the map.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a generation ship in possession of a crew and a destination must be in want of a mission-ending calamity, possibly involving: mutiny, mutants, and/or cannibalism. The author certainly knew this trope, because she staffed the ship with people who are ticking psychological time bombs.
As it turned out, there were perfectly good reasons for the mission organizers to select these specific six people2 . Despite having every reason to distrust each other, the six do a fair job of cooperating in the investigation. Even the murderer.
This is science fiction but it is also a mystery. There’s a long genre tradition of isolating the victims and suspects in some remote location — a ski lodge, a train trapped by snow, or a country estate — to heighten the paranoia by minimizing the suspect list. Setting the plot in a distant starship is a variant of a standard theme.
The author does a nice job of juggling her cast of characters, giving each of them a moment in the spotlight. They may have been murderers, but they interested me.
This is an enchanting little science fiction mystery, in a setting that could sustain more stories.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com
1: An interesting difference between hard SF when I were a young un and now is that places on the map that used to have “here there be dragons” on them are now mapped locations. Tau Ceti would be an example: it is now believed that Tau Ceti has a planetary system and that two of its worlds may be within Tau Ceti’s Goldilocks zone (or not: one may be too cold and the other victim of runaway greenhouse effects). Despite their location, neither planet is particularly promising. Both are much larger than Earth: a minimum of 4.3 Earth masses in one case and a minimum of 6.6 Earth masses in the case of the second. Gravity would be a killer.
Unless one of those worlds were in fact two worlds, circling each other like Pluto and Charon, indistinguishable at a distance. One of those worlds might be habitable.
2: Before the selection protocol was explained, I decided that it could only be even “worse than the method used in Barton and Capobianco novels”. I figured I could pick better crews by throwing darts into a crowd of strangers.