The Original, Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal; Julia Whelan, narrator (Recorded Books 978-1-98006289-9, $19.99, digital download, 4 hr., unabridged) September 2020.
This novella, currently available only in audio, is a tight, exciting thriller, blended with emotional nuance and plenty of food for thought.
In the near future, we have become a world of lotus eaters. The global government provides an income to everyone, so no one has to work. Nanites keep everyone young and healthy, and even edit one’s perceptions so that everyone’s sensory experiences can be tailored to personal preferences, known as themes (just like the preferences you set on your computer or phone, but for everything). The nanites can even record a person’s memories, so that a recently dead person’s memories can be updated into a clone. But when Holly Winseed’s clone awakes in a hospital bed, she learns that her original is still alive. However, her beloved husband Jonathan is not. He has been murdered – by original Holly. The government has created this provisional clone, “edited in” combat training and reflexes, and given her four days to find and kill original Holly. If the replica succeeds, she’ll be permitted to take over Holly’s life. If she fails, so will her nanites, and she’ll die.
There are plenty of movies and print fiction that concern a clone hunting down the original and/or an assassin who hasn’t been given all the truth. But this is a really great take on that formula; the conceit that the government is controlling people through their nanites and the profound ways in which the nanites distort everyone’s perception of reality invigorate the story with chilling effectiveness, and really make the listener think about the way our own society is going. The ending is both ambiguous and emotionally wrenching.
I’m surprised that co-author and professional audiobook narrator Kowal didn’t read the story herself; her voice and her presentation typically convey a layer of sweetness and gentility over an iron center, a persona which would have suited the narrative perfectly. Nevertheless, Julia Whelan is excellent here, beautifully expressing replica Holly’s often flat affect (a product of shock? Or something else, perhaps), worries and frustration about the nature of her existence, anger about “her” husband’s death and confusion about the details surrounding it, and the ways in which the tactical skills imposed upon her psyche may be impinging on what she thinks of as her core personality. This is a wonderful collaboration from the two authors and narrator, a tribute to how original audio can really shine.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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