Simon & Schuster pitches Jessica Chiarella’s new book, And Again, as being “in the spirit of Station Eleven and The Age of Miracles,” labeling it as an “exciting literary debut novel.” And Again begins in a hospital as four people wake up from experimental surgery. Hannah, Connie, Linda and David have new cloned bodies, each remembering living in a dying body with cancer, AIDS, total paralysis and a brain tumor. When I saw this novel displayed prominently at my local bookstore, with no mention of science fiction, I wondered who would buy it – Sci-Fi fans or general readers? Since I’m a science fiction fan, I read this novel as SF, but I’m not sure everyone will.
Because I loved both Station Eleven and The Age of Miracles, I figured this book was for me. It was. Evidently, I’ve got the literary-SF gene, because I also loved The Road, Never Let Me Go, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Cloud Atlas.
What makes a novel science fiction? Does the writer decide? Or the publisher? Or the readers? Is a book science fiction because of far out ideas? I’ve even wondered if genre is determined by how the story is told. Comparing And Again with Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, the Hugo winning novel by Kate Wilhelm, readers should notice a distinct difference. Both stories are about clones, yet Wilhelm’s plot unfolds how clones create a new society set in a post-apocalyptic America, while Chiarella’s novel doesn’t have a plot, is set in current day Chicago, and is about ordinary people pursuing ordinary lives. Kate Wilhelm wrote about the world changing, whereas Chiarella writes about people changing.
And Again feels more like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Neither are like traditional science fiction novels about clones, that focus on bigger plots, with characters having serialized immortality through mind downloading. Literary novels tend to be personal. Their characters often feel like people you know rather fictional heroes. The best literary novels often seem like nonfiction.
Chiarella is philosophical in her story, focusing on what’s it like to get a new body. Most science fiction writers would use the same subject to tell a larger and more exciting tale. As we all get older and our health fails, don’t we all wish we had a new body? Science fiction, such as the stories by John Varley, take it for granted that using cloning and brain downloading would give us immortality, something everyone would want. The characters in this novel show doubts.
I was surprised by how many unique sensations Chiarella imagined for her clones. For a new writer she shows wisdom beyond her age, nothing profound, but well thought out characterizations. And Again is a solid contribution to theorizing about cloning, and an emotionally engaging story about four people and their mundane lives. I’m not sure how exciting this novel will be for science fiction fans who love action. I crave less action now that I’m older, and realism has become more thrilling, so And Again worked for me.
Most of the customer reviews at Amazon and Audible were generally very positive, but there were some complaints. I was particularly surprised by the comments claiming the characters were unlikable. This got me to thinking. Literary characters are admired for their realism. I never think about liking or disliking literary characters. Those complaints puzzled me. What if SF readers need a likable character so they can pretend to be that character? What if one factor in making a book science fiction rather than literary, is suitability for escape? Who would want to pretend to be Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four? Who wouldn’t want the survival skills of Katniss Everdeen? (Even though both books are about dismal dystopias I’d rather fight in the games than live under Big Brother.)
While reading And Again you might imagine living your own life over with a new body, but I doubt any reader would want to be Hannah, Connie, Linda or David. This makes me wonder if the appeal, and even the defining quality of science fiction, isn’t the ideas after all, but how the story is told. In the early days of science fiction, pulp magazines had words like Amazing, Astounding, Astonishing, Wonder and Thrilling in their titles. I remember when reading Ringworld that I thought it had the structure of an Oz book, a human meeting up with some odd characters going on a journey together, while seeing a lot of strange places and wondrous beings along the way.
The characters in And Again only experience ordinary life after they get their new body. I loved their story and unique situations, but I’m not sure how science fiction readers who expect thrilling plot rides will respond. Here’s the kicker, if you wanted to read a novel that conveys what it feels like to get transferred to a clone body, then And Again is the book to read. Chiarella has obviously thought a great deal about waking up in a new body.
I listened to And Again, narrated by Julia Whelan, Joy Osmanski, Rebekkah Ross and Corey Brill. The story is told in a round-robin series of 1st person narratives. These narrators dramatically conveyed the sense of individuality to each character. And I have to say that I was amazed that a young person like Chiarella, who apparently is still in her MFA writing program, could create such mature human stories, and such a readable first novel. I’m curious if she developed her characters from observing people she knew, or learned creative characterization from great books?
Cloning is a real process, and I’m pretty sure scientists could clone a human if they tried. Personally, I believe mind downloading is a complete fantasy. Chiarella intelligently avoids this issue by vaguely suggesting that parts of the old brain are transferred—the parts with the personality. Clever, but I don’t think that will happen either. But the complications she imagines for her characters are spot on speculation. Which gave me a lot to think about for the possibilities of cloning, which is a quality I attribute to science fiction.
And Again is the second novel I’ve selected for my reading challenge of finding six books before the end of the year that will appear on any “Best SF of 2016” lists in December. My first choice was All the Birds in the Sky. Picking that book was easy because it’s getting tremendous press. I’ve seen far less written about And Again, but I think it will be on some people’s lists if it gets good word of mouth. I’m doing my part here. Hundreds of SF books come out during the year that are well worth reading. They all deserve attention, but their numbers force a Darwinian competition to find readers. I find that process fascinating.
The February, 2016 issue of Locus reports that 1,820 new genre books were published in 2015, with 396 of them science fiction. This year Locus picked 28 SF novels for their recommended reading list of new SF novels. I figure if I gathered all the “Best SF of 2015” lists, and consolidated the top picks, I might have as many as 40 titles, or about one tenth the amount published. But in reality, less than ten titles will get most of the buzz, and be regularly remembered in coming years. Looking at all the new releases at Locus, SF Signal and Kirkus Reviews overwhelms me. I wonder what the odds are of me stumbling upon six that will be the critical favorites by the end of the year?