The Sentient

The Sentient

by Nadia Afifi

Paperback(Not for Online ed.)

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"Afifi’s staggering and un-put-downable debut offers a fresh and feminist-forward take on cloning [...] This riveting debut is a must-have for any sci-fi fan."— Publishers Weekly starred review

Included in Library Journal's "Rise of the Monsters: Top Horror Titles and Trends Coming This Season

Amira Valdez is a brilliant neuroscientist trying to put her past on a religious compound behind her. But when she’s assigned to a controversial cloning project, her dreams of working in space are placed in jeopardy. Using her talents as a reader of memories, Amira uncovers a conspiracy to stop the creation of the first human clone – at all costs.
As she unravels the mystery, Amira navigates a dangerous world populated by anti-cloning militants, scientists with hidden agendas, and a mysterious New Age movement. In the process, Amira uncovers an even darker secret, one that forces her to confront her own past.

FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781787584327
Publisher: Flame Tree Publishing
Publication date: 09/08/2020
Series: Fiction Without Frontiers
Edition description: Not for Online ed.
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 275,113
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nadia Afifi is an Arab American science fiction author who lives in Denver, Colorado. Although born in the United States, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain before returning to Missouri for college. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be a writer, but having two scientists as parents also instilled a love of speculative fiction. Her experiences in the Middle East and her multicultural upbringing have driven the stories she wants to tell, by exploring present-day issues such as women’s rights, religion and cultural identities through a futuristic lens. Her father is a Saudi geologist of Palestinian descent, while her mother is an American geologist from St. Louis, Missouri.

She attained a Bachelor’s in Journalism, followed by an MBA, from the University of Missouri and currently works for the Department of Veterans Affairs by supporting new projects to improve the agency’s healthcare systems. While working for the VA, she began her first novel, The Sentient. She has also written several short stories, including “Exhibit K”, which recently featured in Abyss and Apex magazine.

Nadia is represented by Naomi Davis at Bookends Literary Agency. When she isn’t writing or working, she spends her time hiking in Colorado, thinking about her next story on the treadmill or planning her next overseas vacation.


What is the book about?

The Sentient is about cloning, consciousness, and an ambitious neuroscientist with a complicated past. The protagonist, Amira, escaped from a fundamentalist compound as a child and dreams of working in one of the research space stations that now orbit the Earth, using her talents as an interpreter of memories. Instead, she’s assigned to a cloning project in the Pacific Northwest, one that looks set to fail because every woman they’ve attempted to clone has died inexplicably in the third trimester. The last surviving woman to be cloned is a refugee from another religious compound, which hits close to home for Amira. The project’s lead scientist recruits Amira because she suspects that there’s a psychological component to the deaths. And sure enough, Amira discovers that the surviving subject has had her memory tampered with. Someone edited her memory to hide something that happened to her on the compound.

Amira attempts to unravel the mystery behind the hidden memory, only to uncover an even larger conspiracy to keep the cloning project from succeeding – at any cost. What follows is an adventure as Amira becomes more entangled in a dangerous web of anti-cloning militants and scientists, one in which she will have to confront her own past in order to protect those she cares about.

What are the underlying themes?

One of the major themes of this book is identity and whether a person can transcend the life they were born into. My main character, Amira, escaped from a fundamentalist compound and an arranged marriage. She found a better life for herself in a progressive city, but the compound haunts her. She’s a little ashamed of where she came from and does everything she can to remove herself from her earlier experiences. So, when she’s assigned to a cloning project in which she has to untangle a fellow compound escapee’s memory, she struggles, because her own past traumas bubble to the surface. The young woman being cloned, Rozene, frustrates Amira, because Amira sees what she could have become – broken and lost. Rozene has failed to integrate into the modern world outside the compounds. Of course, Amira’s not as well integrated as she’d like to think – and the city she’s embraced isn’t as perfect as she wants it to be. As the story progresses, Amira realizes that her past is a part of her and stops running from it.

Another big theme is the complex interplay between faith and science. In the future world of my novel, society at large became more secular and egalitarian, while the more conservative, traditional elements of society felt left behind by the pace of change – and became more extreme and dangerous as a result. The extremists fought, lost, and retreated to isolated compounds to escape from the wider world. Their beliefs also evolved with the times, however. For example, after a series of scientific breakthroughs confirmed the existence of parallel worlds, it became incorporated into the faith of the compounds – if you’re good and follow the tenets, you go to the good parallel reality, while if you’re a sinner, you go to the one that resembles monotheistic hell. They also cling to traditional gender roles, which forms the basis for their opposition to the cloning project – the idea of females reproducing without male input is a threat to their social order.

Similarly, the new age Cosmic movement in The Sentient began with a group of scientists looking to modernize faith. They started with a legitimate scientific hypothesis, and then answered the open questions with a dogma of their own. I’ve always found that impulse fascinating – it’s human nature to fear the unknown, so we’ll cling to any reassuring explanation for life’s bigger questions. It’s understandable, until it becomes dangerous. The cloning project in The Sentient puts those conflicts between science and faith out in the open.

Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?

Bits and pieces of people I know are woven into some of the characters, while others come entirely from my imagination. An earlier draft of The Sentient featured a love interest for Amira who was based on two different, real people, but he doesn’t feature in the final version. I like the character, so he’ll hopefully find his way back into the next book (fingers crossed)!

I’m present in a little bit of three of the female characters – Amira (the protagonist), Rozene (the woman being cloned), and Valerie Singh (the chief geneticist on the cloning project).

How did you start this book? What was the initial idea?

I started with a desire to write a cloning story in which cloning wasn’t something inherently evil and dangerous. In many science fiction stories, particularly in movies, cloning never goes well – the clones are evil, or suffer from horrible deformities, or destroy humanity. I wanted to take a different angle – a scenario where the conflict comes from irrational fear and hostility to cloning, not the technology itself. From there, I developed the character of Amira – a woman trying to find herself and look forward, never back, until events force her to face some harsh truths.

Is there anything you were very conscious to avoid when writing this book?

From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to feature a heroine who wasn’t modeled off the traditional male action hero. As much as I enjoy a strong, “kickass” woman in a science fiction story, I’d like to see more characters who show other kinds of strength. Amira isn’t a fighter. She can’t fire a weapon, high kick in heels or get out of dangerous situations using violence. She has to use other qualities – intelligence, empathy, trust – to reach her goals. I’d like to see more of those characters, regardless of gender, because it makes for a more creative story when a character can’t just shoot and punch their way out of a tight situation.

Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?

Push through those challenging periods in your story! I’ve met so many people who’ve told me that they started a novel they’ve never finished. When I ask why, the answer usually boils down to some variation of the story getting too hard to finish – navigating structural or plot issues, running into hard passages to write or just struggling with the time commitment it takes to finish a novel. All stories have sections that are difficult to write. These people may have talent and a great story to tell. But what separates the successful writers from those that give up is a willingness to persevere. Just keep writing – making the story perfect is what editing is for.

Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?

I can’t listen to music while I write – I’ve tried and failed! It’s too hard to focus. However, I don’t need complete silence, either. I’ll either write at home or in a café, when I need a change of scene.

Did you find it hard to write? Or harder to edit your own work?

The first draft is always tough for me, because I’m a perfectionist and I know the first draft can’t, by design, be perfect. It’s hard to resist the urge to aggressively edit as you go. I enjoy the editing process– re-reading that first draft and finding the elements that aren’t working. Editing your own work is still challenging, because it’s hard to look at your story objectively and see it through the eyes of another reader. A great piece of advice I heard once was to walk away after you’re done with a story for at least a week. Create some distance, let the wheels in your head turn in the background, and come back to it with a fresh and open mind.

What was it like to be edited by someone else?

I love it! It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you’re sharing a new story with someone else for the first time – it’s like a piece of your soul being scrutinized and highlighted with a marker. In my early stages as a writer, it was hard not to get hurt or defensive. But I’ve learned the power of feedback. It’s great to get a completely different set of eyes on your work, to see things that you can’t see. As much as I write with the end reader in mind, it’s critical to get that outside perspective.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on two projects at once, just to make things difficult. One is another adult science fiction novel, set in near-future Morocco, that also has human consciousness as part of the story. The second one is a young adult science fiction novel, set in two times and places that converge thanks to an extraterrestrial crash. I’ve never written young adult before, so it’s a real challenge. But if it’s challenging, it’s a sign that it’s worth doing!

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