April 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Secret by Ava Hoffman
Ballantine / Random House Trade: ISBN 0345465369 PubDate: 04/27/04
Review by Sam Lubell

272 pgs. List price $ 12.95
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In Science Fiction/Fantasy the setting is crucially important to making a work seem like science fiction/fantasy. In some books, such as Dune the setting is the most memorable part. Only in SF/Fantasy (well, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) can you have a series of books linked not by characters but by sharing the same setting (Pern, Darkover, Valdemar). In short, in Science Fiction, worldbuilding matters. However, mainstream writers from outside the genre, who have not done much reading in the field, think they can just sprinkle a few technical-sounding words and call that a future setting. It seldom works (The setting and the science were certainly the weakest part of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow) By contrast, the equivalent in mainstream fiction are characters. Literary fiction can work with strong characters even if the background is tissue-thin.

The Secret by Eva Hoffman (Ballantine $12.95) shows the virtues and the flaws of a mainstreamer’s approach to Science Fiction. The focus is on the characters, particularly Iris and her mother. The background is almost invisible and just dropped in without consistency. Iris’s story is occasionally interrupted by a character identified only as her “Adviser” (a psychiatrist?) who asks questions as if her story is being narrated (but is never explained), there are mentions of an “Affect simulator” that gives people artificial emotions, and a virtual club, but aside from that, the story might as well be taking place today as none of these technologies seem to do anything.

Iris grew up in a suburb of Chicago and had an unusually close relationship with her mother who forbid her to play with others. But the older self narrating the story constantly drops hints of something. “But yet: although I didn’t suspect, somewhere – I would be tempted to say in my soul, if that word weren’t such a travesty in my case—I knew. I knew there was something wrong and strange without ever being able to put a name to it, to form anything as coherent as a suspicion…” The first half is like this, as she grows older she gradually senses more and more that something is wrong. Her mother occasionally seems jealous of Iris and the girl’s one meeting with her aunt, when she is six, leads to quarrelling and accusations of something monstrous. Iris and her mother share feelings and react together. This closeness is disrupted when Iris goes to school (the book seems years behind the growth of the homeschooling movement) and Iris learns she cannot make friends without betraying the unspoken secret she shares with her mother. And when her mother forms a romantic attachment with an archaeologist who prevents Iris from crawling into her mother’s bed when she has bad dreams, her mother goes to Iris and ultimately this connection drives the man out of their lives. As Iris grows older the two become more alike, almost like sisters.

Eventually, when Iris is old enough she discovers her birth certificate with the flat reference “Method of Birth: Cloning”. But if cloning was common enough 18 years ago to be on birth certificates, why wouldn’t her secret be figured out, or at least guessed before this point? Still, this revelation causes her to run away and go to the lab where she was made, and ultimately to her grandparents, who only half accept her and frequently mix her up with her mother/genetic source.

The story is full of references to “creature like me” “something weird about me” and, after she learns the secret “not a real person” and “how can a copy have desires of its own? A clone.” The book is really about her struggle to accept her identity as clone and see that she can be a real person and a clone. Although scientifically a clone is no different from an identical twin, it seems believable that clones may think differently, especially one going through adolescence and dealing with the adolescent struggle to define oneself and differentiate oneself from one’s parents.
The book’s plot is simply the deepening of Iris’s character. Iris is the central consciousness; everything else in the book is filtered through or narrated by her. Ultimately, the book is a journey of self-discovery about a clone’s search for an identity separate from that of her mother. In this regard, as with the setting, The Secret proves to be a mainstream, literary novel more than the typical sf story driven by plot, even though the entire story is built around an SF idea. Or is it? In the post Dolly world, where cloning of animals is a fact not fiction, is cloning still science fictional enough to make a novel about it science fiction?

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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