Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A locked room mystery, a generation ship off-course, a snarky AI with secrets, and more clones than you can shake a food replicator at – Six Wakes has it all. The ‘clones’ are more like 3D printed people that come fully grown and complete with memories – a clever conceit that works rather like re-spawning in a video game. In effect, Lafferty’s clones have a potential infinite life-span, so long as they can afford to be re-cloned and keep their personalities backed up.

So who better to pilot a ‘generation ship’ on a long journey to another planet, than a crew of clones who can replicate themselves? Ah, well not this crew! The novel starts with the crew waking in crisis from cloning tanks and finding the murdered bodies of their last iteration floating in zero gravity in a spaceship out of control.

Murder, secrets and lies: the small crew have their fair share of each and an apparently incapacitated AI unable to explain what has occurred.

Mixing a day-by-day account of the crew’s investigation into themselves with flashbacks that flesh out the social history and legalities of clones on future Earth, the story rushes headlong into a science fiction murder mystery thriller.

Original in scope but using familiar ideas, Six Wakes feels like an updated variant on classic Philip K Dick territory. Paranoia and core questions of the nature of personal identity take centre stage, pushing the more violent mystery into the background. Motive and the fragility of memory are incrementally examined as we learn more about each crew member’s backstory.

Hard to say more without spoilers. I thoroughly enjoyed this story but I’ve some doubts about the ending (again hard to elaborate). I thought the pacing was impeccable – mind you the last book I read was like watching a glacier melt so my perspective may be distorted!

Suffice to say my Hugo ballot for best novel hasn’t got easier. Did it blow my socks off? No, but I think it is a worthy contender.

[Thank you to the friend of this blog who donated a copy for review purposes. I have vowed to buy my own when it becomes available. Orbit doesn’t have a good record with Hugo packets but in this case surely letting voters outside of the US read the book is only fair! ]

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41 thoughts on “Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

  1. I need to do a reread of this, but the way it handles cloning/personhood transfer is one of my least favorite tropes in sf (see also Altered Carbon, Old Man’s War, and others), so it had a huge strike against it in my book from the beginning.

    Let me just rant this one rant — no, transferring memories from one body to another body does not mean that you have transferred the “person” from one to the next! No, the first person is not still alive — that first person is **dead**, and a new, **different** person is now alive, simply sharing some of the same memories!!

    ::shaking my fists, stomping my feet, making various unintelligible growly noises::

    Thanks, I feel much better now. 😉

    (Oh, and see the Bobiverse books for an example of this idea done RIGHT. Grumble mumble… )

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    1. First, I think the book made it reasonably clear that the view of “the clone is the first person, still alive” is to some extent a legal fiction – it’s defined by the codicils, not an objective truth.

      Second, the two bodies does not share just _some_ of the same memories, they share _all_ memories up to the point where the mindmap was made. (What I know of neuroscience suggests this is impossible, at least the way it’s actually described as happening, but that’s another discussion.) And this is also something that’s been written into the codicils – both mind hacking and gene hacking is declared illegal.

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    2. I agree with not liking the trope in general but mainly because it tends not to be thought through. I think this book made a better attempt at considering this notion of ‘cloning’ as well as a mechanism for it.

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    3. I grumble along with you.

      To the best of my knowledge, this trope was invented by Jack Vance in his 1956 novel, To Live Forever, a novel I read (in the 1980s), enjoyed, and then yelled “A series of copies that remember being you is not living forever!” I’m curious if anyone knows of any earlier examples.

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    4. @Contrarious

      transferring memories from one body to another body does not mean that you have transferred the “person” from one to the next! No, the first person is not still alive — that first person is **dead**, and a new, **different** person is now alive, simply sharing some of the same memories!!

      Thank you!! I thought this through a while back, and realizing that “uploading,” (and most likely, the Star Trek transporter as well) the way most SFF describes it, is impossible, just erased whatever enjoyment I had from cyberpunk.

      In fact, the only this could be done is through an actual brain transplant from one body to another. Are there any books or stories tackling that idea? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

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      1. There’s an odd one in this area, Chris Boyce’s novel “Catchworld”, which I remember mentioning once as an example of unjustly forgotten SF. The spaceship crew in that one are gradually uploaded into their ship’s onboard computer, via a tailored virus which infiltrates their nervous system with germanium filaments, enabling the computer system to connect with them directly… their brains connect up with the computer, and the actual processing of their thoughts gradually shifts from organic brain to mechanical one, so that there’s a continuous transfer of consciousness from one framework to the other. (Yes, all this stuff has some fairly hideous consequences for their organic bodies – it’s not a cheerful book, this.) The computer, at one point, removes their remaining nervous systems from their bodies, storing the brains near the computer core… it’s at least implied that the brain material will die off once it’s no longer needed, though things don’t get to that point before High Weirdness Intervenes.

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      2. re: brain transplants: This is described in some of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. But there’s no rapidly 3d-printed clone bodies like in Six Wakes, so clone bodies have to be grown into maturity the normal way before the clone’s brain is scooped out and the progenitor’s brain transplanted in. That means the process is both expensive and highly immoral by most people’s standards, and it’s role is rather as one more evil thing the people at Jackson’s Whole does – and that other people try to prevent them from doing – than a major factor in society.

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      3. Heinlein’s I will fear no evil used the concept of brain transplant. I don’t think it was handled well given that he fell victim to the brain-eater while writing it.

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      4. John Varley did this. I read these stories a very long time ago (late ’70s?) so some of this might be wrong, but what I remember is that he had a pretty well-worked-out universe with cloned bodies and recorded memories. At some point he went back and filled in some of the history, and showed that before they worked out the technology for the recorded memories they had to transplant brains from one body to another. (Bodies could also be grown as male or female, if you wanted to change gender.) It was the first time I came across this concept, and my mind was pretty blown.

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    5. IIRC, at least some of the characters in the OMW series talk about how they’re basically copies of dead people, and will be again when they get loaded into their non-military bodies. Because they all see their old bodies die. Also, they discuss the probability that every time they use the warp/jump drive, they end up in a slightly alternate universe. But people with problems with this (like religious folks) just stay on their own planets and die of old age.

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      1. My recollection is that in the original OMW, there’s a scene in which the protagonist is in his old, original body looking at the not-conscious, new military-issue version – and then his perspective is reversed, and he’s looking at his (now deceased) old body. To me, that was written to imply that there was an actual transfer of consciousness from the old body to the new.

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      2. Scalzi played with both concepts; copy and direct transfer. Ghost Brigades has a major character who is a copy of a traitor’s brain recording, made to allow the other characters to explore exactly why the traitor committed his treason. The copy’s “waking up” and becoming aware of his ‘past’ was a major plot point.

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  2. My opinion of Six Wakes became much more favourable once I realized that it’s _supposed_ to read like a contrived Miss Marple-mystery, where everything is arranged just so to make the crime look unsolvable at first but obvious once Miss Marple starts digging. On the other hand, read as a classic murder mystery I think it suffers both from the main part of the mystery being to obvious, and from the details of the plot being to irrelevant.

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  3. The setup sounded like pure gold when I first heard about it, but I think I ended up liking the concept more than the execution. I enjoyed it just fine while I was reading it, but it hasn’t really stayed with me.

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  4. I had to read it twice when it first came out, a month apart. Because I’d so completely forgotten it that I remembered nothing beyond “clones in space, murder mystery”. I didn’t even remember whodunnit, after only a month! As I read the second time, I could have sworn it was for the first. That’s how non-memorable it was.

    Last week I had to google for spoilers to remember whodunnit and why.

    It was a good idea, badly executed.

    Far from knocking my socks off, I think it put another, more boring, set on. If we’d had 3SV, I’d have voted this off the island.

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    1. Oh gosh – I liked it a lot more than that! But that’s books 🙂
      I wouldn’t have initially picked it as a marmite book but looking at reviews now I see a lot of mix. I think the nature of the characters meant there was less strong characterisation for example.

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      1. I liked SIX WAKES a lot and I nominated it. 🙂

        (BTW I don’t see a copy of a person as being that person.)

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      2. I think I do see a copy of a person as being that person but also I liked how 6 Wakes treated that as enforced social norm – ie it wasn’t necessarily true and required laws & social pressure to make it trueish

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  5. @stevejwright: I can’t reply to your msg (I guess only the first two levels are reply-able), but thanks for mentioning CATCHWORLD. I’m intrigued and may try to hunt down a copy. I see used ones for $1.25 at Amazon.com (and some wacko $11,000+ version, yes, that’s not a typo…uh, I’ll go with $1.25 methinks!).

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  6. I loved Six Wakes, and it’s first on my Hugo ballot. It may not be the best novel ever written, but it’s the one I loved most of those published in 2017 — though Provenance is certainly right up there.

    If Retrograde (which was previously self-published) had been eligible, it would have given Six Wakes a run for its money. It’s a different kind of locked-room murder mystery, the hard SF in it is really well-researched and solid, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Six Wakes.

    As far as clones with uploaded minds, if they have all the memories and personality of the original, then as far as I’m concerned the question of whether they’re the “same” person is a philosophical one. I’m not concerned with whether it’s impossible based on what our current knowledge is; if it’s possible in the book, then that is a gimme I am willing to grant. If every SF novel were judged on the basis of “but it’s not possible based on our reality”, almost none of them would pass the test.

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    1. @JJ —

      “As far as clones with uploaded minds, if they have all the memories and personality of the original, then as far as I’m concerned the question of whether they’re the “same” person is a philosophical one.”

      Phhht.

      Clones with uploaded minds are no more the same person as identical twins are. Just as a Xerox copy of the Declaration of Independence is not the same as the original.

      It isn’t an issue of current possibility/plausibility. It’s a logic failure. The clones are simply copies, like Xeroxes, not immortal originals. The original died and remains dead.

      Again — if you want to see an example of this concept handled well, try the Bobiverse books by Dennis Taylor, starting with We Are Legion (We Are Bob). They’re a lot of fun.

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      1. Phil Foglio’s PSmith story arc in the Buck Godot comic plays with the clone/collective consciousness trope quite well. It’s not serial consciousness, but it’s still a fun romp as the other characters discover how PSmith works.

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      1. Chris M: Peter Cawdron is the author [of Retrograde]?

        Yes, my apologies for not being more specific. I really loved this book.

        I also just got done reading S.J. (Simon) Morden’s One Way — as with Retrograde, a “locked-room” murder mystery set on Mars. It’s a good book on its own, but perhaps suffers a bit by comparison to Retrograde.

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    2. it is indeed a heavily debated philosophical question. I’m surprised that so many people here see the answer as just obvious.

      Identical twins aren’t the same person because they don’t have the same memories. Even if they could somehow be given the same memories at some moment in their lives, they wouldn’t stay like that.

      If you don’t,/i> accept memory transfer as preserving identity, it’s not obvious that brain transplantation will help. If you see your identity as bound up with your body, a situated object that interacts with things, then identity is lost when the body (the whole thing) is lost. If on the other hand you see it as bound up with your memory and personality, it’s not clear the brain is needed.

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      1. Brain transplant is obviously the same person. The new body is just a really big prosthetic. People with various brain injuries or dementias, which change identity/memory are still considered the same people.

        Copying your brainwaves is where the question comes in.

        The cloned/recorded brain wave-memories, with only one body at a time is also how it worked in John Varley’s “Eight Worlds” series. There’s one story where someone wakes up after being killed, but of course the last backup was made considerably before that, so the cops have nothing to go on. I think it was “The Phantom of Kansas”, 1976.

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      2. @Andrew —

        “Identical twins aren’t the same person because they don’t have the same memories. “

        They do if they are raised side by side.

        “Even if they could somehow be given the same memories at some moment in their lives, they wouldn’t stay like that.”

        And an uploaded copy of a person’s memories won’t stay identical to the original either.

        If you argue that a clone with uploaded memories IS the original person, then you must also argue that two identical clones with identical uploaded memories are also one person. You see how ridiculous we could get?

        “If you don’t,/i> accept memory transfer as preserving identity, it’s not obvious that brain transplantation will help. “

        Sure it is.

        The essential question boils down to continuity. Continuity of brainwaves works best — even while we are asleep or unconscious we still have some sort of continuous brainwaves. We define death as the cessation of brain activity.

        Anything that interrupts that continuity involves a loss of identity. Move a living brain, though, and continuity is preserved even under anesthesia and even if the brain is removed from the body.

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      3. @Contrarius:

        “Identical twins aren’t the same person because they don’t have the same memories. “
        They do if they are raised side by side.

        Identical twins don’t even have the same fingerprints.

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      4. @Contrarius:
        “If you argue that a clone with uploaded memories IS the original person, then you must also argue that two identical clones with identical uploaded memories are also one person. You see how ridiculous we could get?”

        And that’s one of the things the world of Six Wakes have tried to adress with the cloning codicils: They define that making two identical clones is illegal, it shouldn’t ever happen, and if it happens anyway one of the copies should be terminated and considered medical waste. (Which gives the crew a problem when they find the old captain in the medbay.)

        The codicils also tries to make the clone as identical as possible to the old person. Mind hacking is illegal, DNA changes are illegal, putting a mindmap on a body with the wrong DNA is illegal, and clones must carry their newest mindmap with them.

        Six Wakes does not present “a clone is the same person” as anything like a universal truth, but as a convention people in the world of the book have agreed on. At least the people who’ve actually chosen to clone themselves – although the prevailing view of anti-cloning activists seems to be “not a person at all” rather than “a new person.” The process of reaching that agreement – and how anti-cloning activists disagree – is arguably a significant part of the backstory.

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  7. I loved it, but I also like the tropes involved and the PKD style themes you pointed out. I thought it all pulled together real well and enjoyed the style. Didn’t hit me with the impact some other books that came out last year did but I’m happy to see it among the nominated.

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    1. @PhilRM —

      “Identical twins don’t even have the same fingerprints.”

      So what? Identical twins are just as similar to each other as any other two clones; even more similar than most, in fact, since the twins developed in the same environment (sharing a uterus) and are raised together, while the clones are not.

      Thanks for bringing this up, though. Clones are not actually physically identical to their progenitor — that’s a common misperception. Consider, for example, this photo of a group of cloned calves (I hope the html works!):

      The calves are all genetically identical and they all look similar, but they are not physically identical. In fact, it’s easy to tell them apart. The same is true of any two clones: they are not actually identical. Which is just another reason why it’s silly to pretend that a clone with uploaded memories is somehow the same person as its progenitor. It isn’t.

      @Johan P —

      “And that’s one of the things the world of Six Wakes have tried to adress with the cloning codicils: They define that making two identical clones is illegal, it shouldn’t ever happen, and if it happens anyway one of the copies should be terminated and considered medical waste. (Which gives the crew a problem when they find the old captain in the medbay.)”

      Right. And that’s one reason I need to do a reread: it seemed to me on first reading that the author was leaning too heavily on the “clone with uploaded memories is the same person as the progenitor” fiction that annoys me so much, but I may be ignoring/overlooking/forgetting complexities in what Lafferty was actually trying to get across.

      “The codicils also tries to make the clone as identical as possible to the old person.”

      Yeah, but “identical as possible” still doesn’t mean “the same person as”. Refer back to identical twins.

      “Six Wakes does not present “a clone is the same person” as anything like a universal truth, but as a convention people in the world of the book have agreed on.”

      Right. This is what I need to take a better look at on a reread.

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      1. We’re in vehement agreement here, so perhaps I caused confusion by being too terse: my point was that even genetically identical individuals raised together would not have the same memories, not even of the same events; you seemed to me to be implying otherwise by your “They do if they are raised side by side” reply to Andrew.

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      2. Yes, I reconsidered what you were probably trying to say long after I posted. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the context of what you had posted previously.

        I think we can agree that neither identical twins nor artificially created clones are truly identical. Genetic mirroring is not at all the same thing as either identity or indistinguishability.

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      3. MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

        Sorry. Old reflex from car trips as a kid. KipW probably moo’d at some of the same herds as me.

        Cloned humans would presumably have different patterns of moles, freckles, different retina patterns, fingerprints, just like these cows have different markings.

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      4. I was proud of my moo—the product of careful and repeated observation. It started way down in the lower squeezebox range, and modulated upwards to the totally inane sound at the top. I probably fooled all the cows completely. (Garry Shandling: “Those cows in the field are saying to themselves, ‘There’s a cow driving that car! How does he afford that?'”)

        I also had a mutant power of singular uselessness. All I had to do was look at an animal in some field and it would promptly begin relieving itself. Oh, sure, someone could figure out a way to defeat a foe with it, but it would probably have to be pretty contrived to work.

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