Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Other Ones, a review

The following is a review I wrote some time ago for another site. This site was trying to get reviews/recommendations together for Hugo-eligible works. The idea was to have other works in mind to counter another Puppygate-style attempted takeover of the awards.

Well, it's been two months, about, since that site has put up any new reviews. My guess is that the project has been quietly aborted, perhaps because it might give the Sad/Rabid Puppies more attention. In any case, while I certainly don't want to see the Hugos fall into disrepute, I'm not sure it's my place to save them.

On the other hand, I do want to get word of this work out. It's a somewhat near-future post-disaster science fiction novel by Carola Dibbell, who's married to Robert Christgau and is an accomplished rock writer in her own right. Regardless of any awards it wins, loses, or isn't considered for, this is a book that deserves to be read. So here goes.

The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
Eligible for Best Novel and available for purchase here

Motherhood is a difficult and thankless job. Sometimes it can be a rewarding one.

Children don’t appreciate the sacrifices their children make for them. On the other hand, parents often don’t even know what their kids are going through.

For all the lip service that is paid toward the importance of the family, actual families are left to fend for themselves in a world that doesn’t care about their survival.

Love is love, and doesn’t care if you approve of it.

These are all true statements, but to varying degrees they are guilt-inducing, anxious, or ground down into banality by thoughtless repetition. We don’t think about them most of the time. If we’re reading for pleasure—and I can testify that most of my own reading goes toward this goal—the plight of impoverished families, “traditional” and otherwise, isn’t the most likely candidate.

So the challenge is to make all these truths new, to make us approach them from a new angle. In The Only Ones, Carola Dibbell proves herself up to that challenge.

The story takes place in the back half of the twenty-first century. The young Inez Kissena Fardo, a product of some monstrously abusive foster homes, gets by through foraging ruins in Queens for things that might be valuable enough for resale. It’s hazardous work, and most who perform it don’t live long, because this not-too-distant future is ravaged by killer pandemics. The world is still reeling from The Big One, Mumbai, and lots of deadly little ones. 

Inez, known as “I.”, is a Sylvain hardy, immune to all the devastating new viruses, and to just about everything else as well. This is another source of income for her, selling hair, teeth, urine, whatever to people who hope to contract her immunity.

The staff of “the Farm,” a necessarily furtive fertility clinic, offers her a new way to make some money. Through Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), the content of her cell can be placed in an egg that’s been emptied of the egg-donor’s genetic information, thus making the product of the egg a copy of the somatic cell donor. The mother gets to be the mother of a child that’s someone else, but one who will be spilled from the world’s new viruses.

The mother, a headstrong and traumatized woman named Rini, backs out. The one surviving “viable” now belongs to I. Herein lies the heart of the novel.

Survivor Ani is a charming fictional creation, in herself but perhaps more importantly in what she brings out in I. It’s the new parent’s daily ritual of feeding the baby, keeping them out of harm’s way, and teaching them, but put in a new context. I has to play it cagy, to make a show of avoiding contamination because if it were found out that both she and Ani were immune it would raise too many questions. Also complicating things is the fact that the culture, to the extent there still is such a thing, regards clones as a sci-fi menace. Ani being in broad outlines a clone herself, this stirs emotional reactions in I. Ani develops into a pain in the ass as she nears adolescence, but this has to be seen in light of her not getting to know who she is as well.

Dibbell has lived in New York for quite some time, and The Only Ones is a very New York novel. Paradoxically so, as much of New York is gone and I has to remain in one kind of hiding or another. But the city is all over the rhythms of her speech, grammatically dodgy but somehow erudite.

There is much to embrace in The Only Ones. The way it makes the plague-ridden future tangible in just a few well-placed details. The characterization of Rauden Sachs, the hard drinking scientist who becomes an important part of I’s life, albeit definitely nothing like a husband or father. But its greatest achievement may be the pulpy thrill it brings to the story of a single mother trying to make ends meet.


susan said...

Although far from the first to do so, it's unfortunate the other site closed down without leaving a good-bye message at least.

I enjoyed reading your review of a book that sounds well enough worth reading that I went and found it on Book Depository. Like Paulo Bacigalupi's novel 'Wind-up Girl', where genetic engineering of food and animals has reached a logical (if unpleasant) result, it's one of those sci-fi novels that deals somewhat realistically with a plausible outcome of current trends.

btw: I have 'Nova' on order at the library.

Ben said...

The website is still there. It just sort of dropped this project. I don't know exactly why and I'm not looking to start trouble.

I'm hoping you like Nova. It does have some pretty interesting tangents.

You've convinced me to read The Windup Girl too. I've heard good things about the author, and I'm curious to compare it with this one. Which I don't think you'll be disappointed by.