– J.W. Fox –
You can find novels with generation ships, cloning, and mind mapping. No problem. What you won’t find is a novel that combines all those technologies in a space murder mystery. That is exactly what Mur Lafferty did in Six Wakes. An imaginative premise and strong world-building do it credit but mystery-lovers may find it falling short.
On a massive generation ship traveling to a distant colony, six clones wake up out of stasis. Each is an exact copy of a crew member that died during the voyage. Typically a clone is awakened with all their predecessor’s memories but something went wrong. These clones have no memory of the last twenty years of the voyage. They discover their previous bodies were brutally killed, with only one survivor in a coma. Nearly every ship system is offline putting everyone on board in peril.
There is a murderer and saboteur on board. They must discover what happened to all of them and who sabotaged the ship before they finish the job. The clones remain weary of one another but must somehow work together to get their ship operating again.
Six Wakes presents a well developed cloning concept that includes a detailed history and a legal regime. The novel has a prologue laying out the laws that govern cloning, a convention called the International Law Regarding the Codicils to Govern the Existence of Clones. An individual can achieve immortality through cloning and mindmap transfer, but with some strings attached. Only one clone can be created at a time, no twins or triplets. A clone cannot bear or father children. DNA or mindmap modification are strictly forbidden. Each clone must be identical to its predecessor.
The cloning technology has the power to recreate an individual both physically and mentally, using mindmaps to imprint a predecessor’s consciousness and memories on to a clone. The crew has been cloned several times but also have criminal pasts that puts their future in doubt. They agree to man the generation ship, called the Dormire, on its voyage to a distant colony. There, they will get a clean slate.
Despite the laws prohibiting the modification of DNA and mindmaps, of course there are people out there willing to do it for the right price. Several characters discuss the dangerous practice of DNA editing as well as reshaping someone’s memories and psychological makeup. The characters also explore the controversial nature of cloning itself, particularly the religious implications. Does a clone have a soul?
Hard sci-fi fans will find a lot to like in this book. As for the story, well…
Six individuals of questionable character, multiple murders, and a busted ship are all part of a vast and complex murder mystery. The novel has six POV characters with back stories included. The various angles gives a complete picture of their path to the Dormire and their motivations, including their potential motives for murder. It was an ambitious undertaking on the part of the author and places a burden on the reader to follow six characters. Bios get confused and it is easy to forget details that become relevant later in the novel.
The conventional sci-fi tropes are all well-done and the abundance of characters are developed, for the most part. Where Six Wakes struggles is in the mystery facet. Usually murder mysteries require constant suspense, intrigue, and a great twist ending. Many will find Six Wakes wanting in all three areas.
The first third to half of the novel is too slow, with the crew focused on the tedious task of cleaning and repairing the ship. The author cites Connie Willis as one of her major influences, another author that prefers a steady, deliberate pace with lots of detail. That might work for Willis but it does not work as well for Lafferty.
Six Wakes has chapters with plenty of tension but it is not sustained. Much of it is broken up by flashback chapters where we learn how each character got on board the Dormire. In some instances, these chapters were compelling. In another structure, they would work quite well. Unfortunately, they tend to undermine the suspense and often distract from the main plot.
The twist at the end is sufficient in scale but is somewhat convoluted due to an excess of moving parts. A few more sci-fi tropes are thrown in at the end (I won’t spoil them). They add scale but do not make for a better ending. There were some minor stylistic issues (obnoxious, over-the-top dialogue mostly) and a couple plot holes as well.
The dynamic among the various crew members is interesting at times and carries the story to some extent. Unfortunately, the dynamic is primarily among protagonists as the story lacks a true, present antagonist. Perhaps the author intended to include the antagonist in the sequel, which was a mistake in my opinion. The villain was built up to be a cold-blooded psychopath, but we only see her in the flashbacks.
It is yet another common mistake: withholding the best material for the sequel instead of writing the strongest book one possible.
It is an all too common story. A novel with an exciting and interesting premise that struggles to deliver. It seems it is easy to go big when it comes to ideas. Execution is where many fall short.
Six Wakes has the world-building and detail to be an above average hard science fiction novel. The problem is the book also tries to be a murder mystery. To that end, the novel is not as successful. Better pacing and a more streamlined climax would have earned it a recommendation, but to truly be great, it needed a powerful big reveal or twist that made readers gasp. This novel failed to deliver that.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.