I admire mystery writers a lot. The way that they manage to make a hundred different intricate pieces fit together, the way they drop just the right amount of hints, the way they keep you on the edge of your seat for (in this case) hours on end. It takes skill as a writer to construct a well-crafted mystery, the type of thing that can really captivate a reader in a way that little else can. An excellent mystery, like Six Wakes, will end up blowing your mind for several hours after you finish reading.
The concept behind this book is one that pretty much immediately scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. Six people, the crew of a generation ship 25 years away from Earth, all wake up in their cloning tanks, in fresh bodies. When they are cloned, they are not supposed to be missing any memories due to mindmapping technology. These six, upon waking, are surrounded by the corpses of their former lives – all of them about 25 years older than they remember being. All of the bodies bear the signs of murder – stab wounds, poisoning, strangulation. It had to have been one of the six crew members who killed them all in a sickening murder suicide and ruined the memory backups, so they would all start fresh. But which one of them? And why? Things only get more complicated when it’s revealed that all of the crew members were criminals on Earth and they took this job for a chance to be pardoned.
The premise of the technology behind this book is one of the things that really stood out to me – the book opens with a section of a set of laws related to cloning. In this vision, the technology is used to achieve effective immortality, and not for multiplication of oneself. In fact, multiplication – two clones of the same person existing at the same time – is strictly forbidden and universally results in the immediate execution of the older clone. I really don’t think I’ve ever seen cloning used this way in a book I’ve read – everything I’ve read so far uses it explicitly for multiplication, with immortality as a possible side effect.
At any rate, you can imagine the conflict that ensues when the newly awakened crew finds their way to the medbay and finds a comatose, but still-alive ship’s captain. The new captain wants to immediately destroy her prior self, but she’s also one of their only chances to find out just what’s happened to them, and who the killer was. This is only the first of many conflicts among the crew. The spaceship’s staff consists of Captain Katrina de la Cruz, Pilot Akihiro Sato, Computer Engineer Paul Seurat, Medical Doctor Joanna Glass, Security Officer Wolfgang, and Systems Engineer Maria Arena (and artificially intelligent ship’s computer IAN). All six of them are (or are supposed to be) criminals; and as is gradually revealed throughout the book, they’ve all impacted each other’s lives in one way or another.
The way that the backstories interweave and are gradually revealed is far better than I could ever hope to do justice to by describing. Of course, none of the characters are really aware that their lives have touched in these ways, and they are gradually made aware over the course of the story. This begins to color their interactions with each other, for better or for worse, and tensions ratchet up very quickly and they stay there as the stakes escalate. Almost every time a character thinks they can trust another, they are proven wrong. Literally every character is a possible murder suspect at one point or another. To me, that’s how a good murder mystery should be. No one character should be above suspicion, not from the reader and not from the other characters.
In a previous review, for Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, I complained about how that book wasted a lot of potential regarding the interactions of the main characters as they lose trust in each other, as their circumstances worsen, as the drama rises. Instead, that book ditched all of that power it had been building to focus instead on a more lofty, theoretical premise that it wanted to examine. Six Wakes does a nearly perfect job of balancing these two things – the book feels extraordinarily well-weighted between the character development of the crew and the underlying questions and themes regarding personhood.
It’s no secret that using robots as a sci-fi mechanism to explore what personhood is and what it means, to explore sentience and its consequences, is one of my very favorite things. This book uses clones to explore much the same concepts, and it works very, very well. You can tell that Lafferty put a great deal of thought into the way that a clone-heavy society would be structured, and the impact that kind of technology would have on our current world. The parts of the Codicils, the worldwide agreement regarding the rights and legal limitations of clones, that we see are very realistic and do a great deal to show what kind of world this is. I think opening the book with that chunk of the Codicils was a brilliant move, because it builds your idea of this setting before you’ve even met a single character.
And it does explore all of this, in-depth, without ever slowing down the plot or the character development or feeling clunky or info-dumpy like so many books. Of course, being a murder mystery, there is another main concept, a thread that runs kind of under the surface of the book until the last couple of chapters. There’s a couple of themes that are common to all or most murder mysteries and one of them is revenge. The concept of vengeance runs very strongly in this book, more in retrospect than in the initial reading. When the real situation is finally revealed – the common thread between all of the characters, the common link between everything that’s happened – everything clicks together so beautifully that you almost miss the depths of the revenge that was attempted here. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding spoilers so far in this review, but let’s just say that I wish I was rich and powerful enough to fill a spaceship full of thousands of my enemies and launch it into space (I am not even rich and powerful enough to have thousands of enemies).
Sometimes, when I read a book lately, I find myself wondering what people who don’t write book reviews think of it; people who just read to read and don’t look for any kind of further meaning or read between the lines. I typically think they’re more likely to enjoy any given book, and someone just looking for space murder and nothing else certainly would have enjoyed this book. But I think they would really be missing something. This is a book with a really diverse cast of characters (half are female, many POC, one disabled (the use of cloning to correct genetic diseases and disabilities was also forbidden, due to eugenics)), which some readers may not notice, but I always do. And do you know who the “bad guy” is (you know, one of them)? The white dude bigot carrying a generations-old chip on his shoulder against clones for no good reason except that his parents and grandparents also hated clones (justified with a flimsy excuse, of course, but bigotry often is). Beyond that, the Latina woman who kind of gets dismissed as the cook, the cleaner, the spaceship’s maid for lack of a better term, turns out to be a genius programmer and hacker of clone technology, possibly the best the world has ever seen. This is not a book that hammers you over the head with morality, but the subtlety of the lesson here is quite possibly more effective than an in-your-face message.
This is, honestly, a phenomenal book and you should absolutely go and read it, like, now. If you like mysteries, if you like science fiction, if you like really cool ensemble casts, if you like space, if you like absolutely brutal revenge stories, if you just like a really well-written and well-crafted novel. I know it’s a cliche to say “do yourself a favor and read this book”, but for real, do yourself a favor and read Six Wakes. It’s a hell of a ride.