There is a reason that Pamela Sargent’s Cloned Lives has been overshadowed by Kate Wilhelm’s clone-themed Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), which garnered a Hugo award and a Nebula nomination, released the same year. While Sargent’s vision is painfully melodramatic and descriptive to a fault where pages and pages and pages pass without a single metaphor or simile, Wilhelm’s was psychologically taut and beautiful. Cloned Lives is comprised of three previously published works, the short story ‘A Sense of Difference’ (1972), the novella ‘Father’ (1974), and the novelette ‘Clone Sister’ (1973). Each section shifts perspective between each of the clones and their father (with a culminating ‘Interface’ section).
Despite Cloned Lives’ manifold flaws there are a few moments of interest, notably amongst descriptive postulations about the nature of her futuristic society, that are prescient and thought-provoking. Likewise, Sargent’s conscious effort to integrate a vast assortment of races (Indians, Arabs, Africans, etc) and gender roles (homosexual couples who use cloning to have children, female scientists, etc) is admirable and appealing. However, these brief (yet intriguing) interludes and observations do not redeem the banal melodrama and repetition that comprises the majority of the work.
In the year 2000 AD Paul Swenson, a brilliant and famous astrophysicist, is approached by one of his biologist friends Hidey Takamura to be the progenitor of a batch of six clones. Previously this type of experiment was forbidden but the end of moratorium on cloning meant that for a brief amount of time, until new legislation could be passed, it’s legal. In the background of the actual experiment millennialist unrest surges – Apocalyptics hold up trains and preach Christ’s Second Coming. The arrival of clones will also be met with public disapproval and suspicion…
Whether or not the clones will be exactly the same as their progenitor is a topic of debate. Hidey convinces Paul, who never was able to bear children due to the death of his wife, with the following argument: “Your environment influences you. You make choices. I’ve seen artists make things I didn’t think could be made with clay and I’ve seen people do things that seemed far beyond the abilities nature gave them. Your clone would at least start out with some damned good clay” (p 20). Paul agrees to have the clones made – five male clones and one female clone (one dies in its artificial womb).
Initially they are teased and tormented and they each deal with it in different ways. This sense of confusion is heightened when Paul dies while on the moon. They are forced to confront who they are and what others think of them. Edward decides that he will avoid any activity that “might require camaraderie of close personal contact with others” (p 81) while others try to fit in. Each clone pursues a what is ostensibly a different trajectory: Jim decides to become a writer and goes his own way, Al heads to the moon and tries to emulate Paul in the study of astrophysics, Mike tries to fit in and gets a doctorate researching power plants (he works for a company that helps third world countries), Ed retreats into his mathematics, Kira studies biology with the same individuals that oversaw her cloning.
Sargent argues that despite their different paths they will all feel drawn to each other and unable to form lasting relationships with others. This leads to some bizarre intra-clone sex (all with Kira of course and not between the male clones) and each experiences extensive bouts of depression. What follows is a “slice of life” type exposition in the form of a series of narrations from each of the clones at different points in their lives as they all go their separate ways, get married, have children, and ultimately, draw closer again….
There are multiple intriguing ideas mentioned in the course of the novel on medical advances and urban planning. For example, brain implants for epileptics that have recently implemented: “Or think of Simon and his miniaturized electrodes. They were feared once, but not they help thousands of epileptics live normal lives” (p 32). Likewise Sargent’s descriptions of the development of vast urban arcologies, and the urban landscape in general are fascinating: “The arcology was a vast hexagonal latticework, narrow at the top and bottom and wide across its middle. It towered over the surrounding forests and parks. A million people lived in Alasand or owned business there” (p 68). But these observations and details are overshadowed by the banal melodrama that transpires.
A central flaw undercuts Sargent’s vision: if you take a good/brilliant but rather boring character and have five clone copies made of him (including one gender-switched female clone) and combine it with your central thematic concept that the patterns of their lives (relationships, depression, etc) will be the same amongst all the clones, then an excruciating redundancy develops. The episodic structure of the novel with its thirty-seven years (2000 AD to 2037 AD) of coverage means that the narrator of each section has to recap what has happened in the lives of all the other clones up to that point!
…which creates this pattern: I (Clone A) have led a dull life and gotten emotionally involved with these people whom then left or I left because I was incompatible and depressed and every one of my brother/sister clones led a similar life and each almost got married to this person and then went off with these other people and became very depressed and did not do much of anything for a long time. And then when something different happens it tends to read along these lines—I also had sex with my clone brothers… Or, I’ve been hanging out a “mile outside a village in Bhutan” (p 291).
Unless you are obsessed with a clone soap opera with a good dose of inter-brother/sister clone sex (ie, with a version of yourself) then avoid this one…. Despite my dislike of her first novel, I plan on reading some of Sargent’s short fiction, perhaps the collection Starshadows (1977, see here).
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.