Blogging the Nebulas: Six Wakes Is a Fiendishly Clever, Character-Based Sci-Fi Murder Mystery

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 19, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

There’s something simultaneously familiar and disorienting about Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. The novel opens with a listing of the laws that govern the creation and status of clones, legal codicils that recall Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Like those strictures imprinted upon artificial minds, the clone codicils are dry, legalistic sentences—the kind of things you just know are going to be bent, broken, and spindled in the course of the novel. It’s like the old saw about beginnings: when Jane Austen tells you in an opening line that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” you can take it to the bank that at least one rich bachelor will acquire a wife in the telling. So too, with genre fiction, but with robots and clones—the opening lines give the reader a path to the narrative. One opening of Six Wakes gives us the dry legalese, the theoretical ethical framework of these clones and their lives. The other, where the prose kicks in, will muss that up with hard reality, and the indivisible complication of personality.

Maria Arena’s clone wakes up on a generation ship with no gravity, floating in a blob of synthetic amniotic goo. Around her new body, she can make out dark red floating globules of blood, and beyond that morbid curtain, what must be the floating corpses of the crew of the Dormire, her own previous incarnation included. She swims herself free of the birthing goo, and sets herself to waking up and situating the other five conscious denizens of the generation ship, which also carries a precious cargo of bodies in suspended animation.

It seems something has gone wrong (understatement). Every member of the crew has been murdered—even the AI who runs the ship, IAN, is offline. That IAN is down seems particularly ominous: the ship’s computer is the ultimate authority onboard, because all six members of the clone crew are criminals, having signed on to live and die and live again on a centuries-long voyage ferrying the frozen bodies of colonists across the stars, with the promise of a clean record  once they all reach the new world. As each clone ages and dies, they are to download their memories into their next body, and continue the mission. But they’ve woken at a loss, their minds reset to the beginning of the voyage, though judging by the wrinkled corpses they’ve left behind, they’ve clearly been underway for some time. The logs have been wiped, and just about everything is offline or inaccessible.

The crew soon determines they have lost over two decades of their lives on the ship, putting them decades into a journey they can’t remember. They have all been murdered by one of their resurrected number, but not even the murderer can remember if he or she did it, or why. Oh, and the technology to map their minds and grow a new body is hopelessly sabotaged, so from this point, any death is permanent.

Six Wakes is a locked-room murder mystery of sorts, and the stakes are unbelievably high. Because Maria and the other crew members are all clones, they have histories that can stretch back centuries. The plot delves into their long pasts while they try to make sense of the present, twisting through their earlier lives and the impossible circumstances they are now trapped in. Paranoia is both rational and irrational, an outgrowth of their situation and its cause. Everyone suspects everyone, including themselves. It’s a right mess. Watching Lafferty write her characters through this hopeless, head-scratching scenario is so much fun (though I recognize taking delight in a situation so dire is a little messed up).

Why it will win:

Six Wakes deftly cuts a balance between airless thought experiment, nuanced character study, and mystery thriller. It opens with a positively Asimovian set of ethical strictures, then messes all of that up with the lived lives of its characters. But the lives of the cloned couldn’t exist without the ethical strictures of the opening, and so the story folds and bends upon itself, a Möbius of personality and culture. The laws clones must operate under feel both antiquated and necessary, and the extremity of their situation makes for a nasty, complicated mix. Because the story delves back in time, sometimes to the first lives lived, we also get a broad, multi-faceted history from several perspectives.

Six Wakes reminds me of Ancillary Justice, which picked up the Nebula in 2013. Its a similarly fresh take on SF tropes, even while it while it embraces genre strictures. The Dormire is a generation ship, yes, and pretty much all generation ships are doomed (at least according to convention). The crew certainly seems ill-fated: woken up with their previous bodies floating in zero-g, the blood scattered like beads around them. But it isn’t a true generation ship; its crew is set to awaken again and again over the ship’s centuries-long flight. The way the cloning technology is used works as both a literary device and a science fictional one, a cool trick that facilitates the narrative in ways that feel inherent rather than convenient. The people who vote on the Nebula are other writers, and I can see this one impressing them quite a bit.

Why it won’t win:

The Nebula is an industry award, and longevity in the industry counts. Mur Lafferty is no neophyte: she’s a veteran podcaster about geekdom, and has even helped establish an award for podcasters, the Parsec Awards. She’s part of the writer’s room for Max Gladstone’s collective fiction series Bookburners, and she’s been anthologized by Jeff VanderMeer. In short, she’s got cred. But that said, Six Wakes also feels like an early entry in a writer’s career (it’s Lafferty’s third traditionally published book, and her first work of science fiction, following two humorous urban fantasy novels). I place it in high regard, next to Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous: both novels are gobs of fun to read, and each has memorable scenes that are intellectually and emotionally challenging in the way I think science fiction is especially attuned to. But there is a hesitancy in the prose and plotting that I don’t see in later-career works like Jemisin’s The Stone Sky or Gregory’s Spoonbenders (we are, of course, comparing apples and oranges here, but isn’t that a necessary function of this exercise, and “best” awards in general?). And all that said, I fully expect to see Lafferty’s name on awards ballots again and again as she hones her craft; this is just the beginning of good things to come.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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