In a departure from her usual fare, Rachel Cohn offers readers a philosophical, suspenseful novel of the future.
Rachel Cohn is as well known for her collaborations like NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST as she is for her solo novels like GINGERBREAD. She's explored the role of technology in our lives in her VERY LEFREAK, sure, but despite all these projects, no one would ever have pegged Cohn as a science fiction writer. That is, until now. Cohn launches a new four-book series with BETA, a near-future novel about cloning.
"BETA, like many science fiction novels, can be read as a commentary on our own world...More universally, however, BETA also urges readers to consider questions of choice, agency, and what it is that makes us human."
BETA takes place sometime in the not-too-distant future, in a time after the Water Wars. Natural resources, including water and air, are commodities to be fought over, hoarded, and prized. Society is heavily stratified, not that anyone would be aware of any of these conflicts in the idyllic island environment of Demesne. There, warm, healing waters and oxygen-enriched air bestow on the inhabitants a sense of contentment so overwhelming that they find it impossible to do any real work. That's where the clones come in. Based on recently deceased humans (known as "Firsts") these clones look just like physically perfect humans --- but they have no souls and are therefore unaffected by Demesne's rarified air.
We meet Elysia, one of the world's first teenaged clones, shortly after she emerges. She is purchased by a wealthy family whose dysfunctions become steadily more apparent the longer she spends with them. Elysia is beautiful, a natural athlete, and endlessly deferential to her human owners. But as she begins to learn more around the world around her, she is also haunted with questions and visions, as well as increasingly unsettling observations and realizations about the world in which she finds herself. Can Elysia reveal to anyone her most private thoughts and (gasp) feelings? Or would she be marked as a Defect and eventually destroyed? What happens when a supposedly soulless clone starts to recognize possibilities for agency and choice? As Elysia herself muses, "What could happen if I were the architect of my own destiny rather than a mere pawn in it?"
Elysia narrates her own story in a voice that alternates between stilted formality and awkward colloquialisms. Her sometimes stiff delivery is entirely appropriate, given who she is, but it can also make it difficult for the reader to connect with her emotionally, at least as first. Eventually, however, readers will be drawn into Elysia's story and the fundamental forces that govern and shape her world.
BETA, like many science fiction novels, can be read as a commentary on our own world, particularly on issues of privilege, conspicuous consumption, and unquestioned decadence, not to mention contemporary issues about sex and drugs. More universally, however, BETA also urges readers to consider questions of choice, agency, and what it is that makes us human.
Rachel Cohn spends an appropriate amount of time establishing and defining the world she's created in BETA; certainly many questions still persist at the end of the novel, but this is a series after all, one that readers will enjoy continuing to discover alongside Elysia.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 8, 2012