I’m a big fan of old school murder mysterys: Dupin versus the ape, Sherlock versus Moriarty, Poirot versus everybody on that one train. The inciting incident, the introduction of the suspects, and the build-up of clues and red herrings: any time I’m invited to figure out the ending alongside the characters, I get a little giddy. The template Agatha Christie used so well made her the bestselling author in history, and many have put it too good use in the decades since, and within every genre imaginable.
As soon as a few writers began to imagine a future in space, others made the logical leap that we’d start killing each other…in space. Many of those stories are standard mysteries with space as a backdrop. Mur Lafferty (known for her work on the Escape Pod podcast as for novels like Ghost Train to New Orleans) does something more interesting in Six Wakes, a space-set murder mystery that builds a compelling future world of human clones and interstellar travel, and rewrites the rules of the crime novel accordingly.
Six people wake up on a generation ship, missing decades of memory. They’re surrounded by blood and gore, and quickly discover the bodies that produced it: their own. In Lafferty’s future, human cloning and “mindmapping” have advanced to the point human life can be measured in centuries; our human brain patterns are preserved at regular intervals, and death typically triggers the inception of a new clone imprinted with a map of the latest scan. This particular group of clones, comprising the bulk of the ship’s minimal crew (automation is handled by the nigh-sentient main computer IAN) have mind maps made at the outset of their journey, with zero knowledge of anything the multiple generations of clones did or encountered in the intervening years.
The ship, intended to deliver thousands of sleeping colonists to the planet Artemis, has been traveling off-course for some time, in violation of ostensibly fool-proof failsafes—the same failsafes designed to prevent things like bloody murder, so things have clearly gone well and truly wrong. In the 25th century, human life is both incredibly cheap and impossibly precious: among the systems that have broken down are the medical tools that allow for mapping and transfer. There’s a likely killer on board, and there’s every possibility that this time, death will be final.
Lafferty fearlessly follows the moral, ethical, and practical implications of this questionably idyllic future. How does quasi-immortality change what it means to be human? If our bodies are disposable, are we then our minds? And what if that mind is just a copy? It’s all very much grounded in the juicy mystery elements, but there are larger ideas behind it all. The doctor, Joanna (because every good mystery needs someone skilled in forensics), provides answers to the purely physical questions: there are strict rules about what can and cannot be done in the realm of cloning, but Joanna (the original) was born with a disability: withered legs that largely confine her to a wheelchair. She lived a life in a clone whose legs were adapted to make walking a possibility, but found that she was uncomfortable, and that her disability is a part of her. Her character raises questions about notions of perfection, and makes a powerfully rare, if understated, anti-ableist statement.
Naturally, easy cloning is largely the province of the wealthy or fortunate, and as we begin to uncover the pasts of our protagonist/suspects, we’re witness to an upending of notions of the value of life: among a certain class, murder has very little meaning as anything more than an inconvenience to the victim. As a result, the bloody-minded have had to get much more creative in punishing their enemies. If questions about whose life matters and why have ever not been relevant (they haven’t), they’re certainly relevant now.
Like all great mysteries, Six Wakes builds compelling backstories for its characters that feed into the central whodunnit? Like the best science fiction, it also asks compelling questions about the future of humanity. By the time the final reveal comes, all of the intricate twists and turns feed back into one another. I said I love murder mysteries, but I rarely guess the ending ahead of time. That’s true here, but it’s incredibly satisfying seeing the pieces come together.
Six Wakes is available now.