Occasionally a book and a writer comes along that breaks rules left right and centre, but does so with panache and style that makes you tip your hat. The beginning of A Fistful of Clones clearly sets it out to be one of those books; an accessible science fiction comedy that immediately endears, the author clearly subjugating all the dos and don’ts to a quirky indulgent style that matches the neuroses of the main character, Henry.
The sketch of our hero is refreshingly honest and clear. An everyman at a low point in life, Henry isn’t doing well, fired from his going nowhere job and quickly abandoned by his girlfriend, his only consolations are wine and old western films.
The plot is equally accessible, setting up a ‘what if’ scenario for us involving a mysterious doctor, lack of employment and a lucrative ‘medical testing’ opportunity as a substitute for real work. Agreeing to give up a little hair, blood and semen to a stranger seems like a small price in exchange for enough money to pay the bills for three months. Henry didn’t even read the forms…
The dilemma that ensues forces our neurotic fish into new waters. That said, the comedic promise of the premise doesn’t quite have the focus it could, with more wordage spent on Henry’s overthinking and overthinking again, a trait which might work better if it gradually faded to mark his character progression. Also, the mixing of viewpoints to establish the different clone contexts isn’t as fast and loose as it might be either and we have a question or two that distracts the reader.
That said, when the action comes, it stays refreshingly in keeping with the tone established at the start. Despite preparation, Henry never gets used to perpetrating his own Highlander scenario. The duels are full of pathetic realism, eschewing any kind of glorification. There is much to laugh at and much that offers a dark reflection on choices we might make if presented with the same dilemma. The time spent on crafting Henry as a character certainly pays off in these scenes. He stands out as original, in the story premise and by the choices he makes. The awkwardness endears and frustrates and helps us see ourselves. Only his hatred of his duplicates stands out as an oddity, despite their meddling with his life, it is difficult to reconcile this emotion with his portrait. Is Henry really capable of hate? Is this a strange form of self-loathing? Or a lie he is telling himself to get the job done?
Finally events drive Henry into taking a stand, like one of the western gun shooters he most admires. The conclusion doesn’t pull its punches and the presence of the clones throughout ensures you never believe our awkward hero is safe. Killing him off and replacing him remains an option right until the last pages.
A Fistful of Clones is a great read that makes a tricky topic accessible, humorous and thought provoking. Perhaps it would serve by being a touch more restrained in exploring the tangential thoughts of characters (and occasionally the author), but this is knowing writing and part of the novel’s endearing charm.
Written on 8th April 2015 by Allen Stroud.
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