RogerBW's Blog

Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty 29 March 2018

2017 science fiction. In a world with cheap and easy cloning and memory transfer, it makes sense to crew the first interstellar ship with clones: when they die of old age on the voyage, they can renew themselves. But now they're all waking up at once, with no memories since the start of the trip, to find their previous bodies messily murdered.

That's a thoroughly atmospheric start to what's basically a locked spaceship mystery: one of them must be the murderer, unless something very strange is going on. But if it's because of something that happened on the trip, the murderer may not even remember their own motivation.

It's a great start, but it stumbles on the traditional rock of SF mysteries: we don't know what's possible. This is the bit from Larry Niven I always think of in these situations:

Now, how can the reader anticipate the author if all the rules are strange? If science fiction recognizes no limits, then... perhaps the victim was death-wished from outside a locked room, or the walls may be permeable to an X-ray laser. Perhaps the alien's motivation really is beyond comprehension. Can the reader really rule out time travel? Invisible killers? Some new device tinkered together by a homicidal genius?

For example: everyone on the crew already knows that it is possible, though illegal, to rqvg gur zrzbevrf naq crefbanyvgvrf bs pybarf orsber gur zvaqznc vf ybnqrq vagb n arj obql. But this is not mentioned to the reader at all, until it's revealed with a flourish a fair fraction of the way through the book. Which means that any assumptions one might have made, or guesses about the reason for the murder, are wasted. And this happens repeatedly as we're introduced to the various rules for how cloning and mind transfers work in this world.

There are also lots of flashbacks, showing who the various members of the crew were before they were recruited. We learn early that they were all criminals; the justification for this is "it's OK, the ship's AI can take over". So, er, why have them at all? Actually there is a reason for that, and when I found out what it was I couldn't pretend to take the book seriously any more. Major spoiler follows.

Gur perj fryrpgvba, naq vaqrrq gur jubyr zvffvba, vf n cybg ol na rkgerzryl evpu crefba gb trg eriratr ba ure rarzvrf (jub vapyhqr nyy gur perj, nf jryy nf gur sebmra cnffratref); fur'f frg guvatf hc fb gung gur zvffvba jvyy snvy orpnhfr gur perj unf pbzr ncneg cflpubybtvpnyyl. Va n jbeyq jurer qrngu vf grzcbenel, fur qrpvqrf, gur bayl ynfgvat guvat lbh pna qb gb fbzrbar lbh qvfyvxr vf gb bssre gurz ubcr naq gura gnxr vg njnl.

"This is not a time to make jokes," the captain said.

"Captain, with all due respect, if I don't make jokes I will instead fall into the screaming panic that is lurking behind every metaphorical tree and bush in my psyche. Now, if you would prefer screaming panic, you say the word. I will mention that it is likely that my last incarnation gave in to said screaming panic, and look what happened to him."

It's not a terrible book. The writing is pretty decent though sometimes clunky ("His voice had a conversational tone that sounded like he really was talking about sports instead of their lives"). The cloning setup is interesting, though it sometimes feels a bit too tailored for this particular story. But I never got much feeling for the characters; none of them is particularly sympathetic even before we find out their Dark Secrets, which of course they all have. All of them are kept in play as suspects until the last possible moment, of course.

This has had great reviews, and you may like it better than I did; perhaps it's just aimed at people who aren't me.

This work was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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