Books of The Times
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If you’ve woken from a routine uploading of your consciousness into the computer at the local cloning clinic, the last thing you want to hear is that something has gone awry. For Constance D’Arcy, the title character in Matthew FitzSimmons’s new thriller, a hint that all is not well comes when, groggy and confused, she hears herself referred to as “it.”
Uh-oh. “This isn’t an upload,” a technician tells her when she comes to, 18 months after entering the clinic. “It’s your download.” Meaning that in the interim, the real Constance has died, and her memories and personality have been transferred into a clone — which is now Constance. Or is it?
“If she was alive, how could she also be dead?” the new Constance thinks. “The two contradictory ideas struggled to coexist peacefully. She was a paradox and knew how the poor cat trapped in Schrödinger’s box must have felt.”
“Constance” is about a person, or at least the simulacrum of a person, who investigates her own death. The premise is intriguing, but the murder mystery is possibly the least interesting part of this science fiction romp, a busy action story with moments of unexpected depth. In between the sleuthing and the schemes for world domination and the eluding of people with guns, we are invited to grapple with genuinely thoughtful questions about the philosophical, legal and ethical implications of cloning and scientific innovation in general. What is consciousness? What defines a person? How much is too far?
Life in 2038 America, where the book takes place, does not feel all that removed from our own world. Cellphones have given way to “light-field devices,” or LFDs, which tuck behind the ear and project floating data in front of the user. Food comes out of a printer. Cars drive automatically, according to an algorithm that keeps traffic zipping along, and run on batteries that can be swapped for fully charged versions when depleted. For those who can afford it, cloning is a way to prolong a life.
As the book begins, Con, as everyone calls her, is a musician still recovering from a car accident three years earlier that killed two of her bandmates and left her beloved boyfriend in a persistent vegetative state. She is preparing to visit Palingenesis, the cutting-edge lab founded by her megalomaniacal aunt, who has given Con the gift of her own clone.
The lab’s customers upload everything stored in their brain into a computer once a month. When they die, the material automatically downloads into their clone, activating this new body and providing their consciousness with a nearly seamless transition from one host to another. (At most, they’ll lose a couple of weeks of memories.)
After some early glitches in which the procedure resulted in “cut and paste instead of copy and paste,” turning the patients into “smoking vegetables,” the error rate has (supposedly) been reduced to a manageable .0000004536 percent, and clones are, at least in some states, active members of society.
That makes Con an unfortunate outlier indeed. In one of many mistakes in her case, her clone has come online too long after her last download, leaving a gaping hole in her memory and possibly sentencing her to mental and physical breakdowns because of corruption in her data.
But she has more immediate concerns. The lab is trying, in its quaint parlance, to delete her. Her old friends shun her as a nonperson. She has to contend with the militant Children of Adam, a radical anti-clone group that derides clones as “pretentious meat.”
The debates around cloning in “Constance” echo many of our contemporary preoccupations — skepticism of science, radical mistrust of those with opposing views, conspiracy theories. One of Con’s friends refuses to see her, citing something she read about how exposure to clones can cause cystic fibrosis in children. “The study had been debunked as junk science, but polls showed that 58 percent of Americans believed the threat to be real,” FitzSimmons writes. “Several states had laws forbidding clones from working around children.”
As Con tries to retrace the steps of her old self’s final months on earth, she meets the man she apparently married at that time, finds out how she died and tries to stay one step ahead of various shadowy groups on her trail. What do they want from her? What is this secret data that may be stored in her head? Why does everyone keep talking about the “cluster of voids”?
The plot thickens into a turbid gumbo of greed, blackmail, megalomania, brain science and duplicity. Clones disappear and reappear; people who seemed to be dead are perhaps not dead at all; there are several potential evil masterminds. It takes some time to figure out who is the evil-est of all.
That is all amusing, if not entirely coherent. Never mind. Maybe what we need most as this bewildering summer winds down is a diverting story about an interesting futuristic topic that injects no new anxiety into our nervous brains.
The book shines in its interstitial moments, as Con’s investigative efforts lead to a reckoning with her past, including a tough childhood redeemed by her love of music. The most compelling parts of the book come when she revisits life with her band, Awaken the Ghosts, named in homage to her hero David Bowie, who once said that music awakened the ghosts within him — “not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.”
In a plot-driven book, the writing can be perfunctory. But FitzSimmons has piquant descriptive skills. A doctor is “thin as a railroad spike,” with a “gaunt, unforgiving face that looked like it had been buffeted by the constant inadequacy of everyone around her.”
When Con returns to her old apartment, she is rattled to find that another family has moved in and put up new pictures. “A framed painting of Jesus gazed down with an expression that suggested he couldn’t quite place her either,” FitzSimmons writes.
It is no coincidence that the heroine is called Constance; the name echoes the book’s questions about the continuity of mind and where personhood resides. In the novel, the Supreme Court is preparing to rule on whether a clone qualifies as a legal person. If life beyond life is really possible, is it really desirable? Misunderstood and feared, many clones end their new lives in suicide, suffering always from a “gnawing sense of being incomplete,” FitzSimmons writes.
As her cloned body starts to deteriorate, Con faces a dilemma: Should she order yet another clone of herself? Or maybe she should live out the rest of her current life, come what may. As she points out, death has “been working for people for thousands of years.”
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