The Echo Wife review: A darkly comedic look at the risks of cloning

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The Echo Wife

Sarah Gailey

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Hodder & Stoughton (Buy from Amazon)

LOVE, death and human cloning have never been brought together so well as they are in The Echo Wife, a fast-paced thriller that is as funny as it is thought-provoking.

The book is set in a reality where human adults can be grown in a lab and then manipulated to think and act in a certain way. In their debut science-fiction novel, Hugo award-winning author Sarah Gailey takes us on a journey unlike those in their fantasy and alternative historical fiction, but one that retains its intensity and intrigue.

The complexity of the characters adds to the sense of unease throughout the novel, leaving the reader questioning who to trust. The story centres on Evelyn Caldwell, a developmental biologist whose cutting edge research into adult cloning comes at a cost. She finds that her husband (also a scientist) is having an affair – with her clone, Martine. And when Martine leaves an urgent message asking to meet, things take an unexpected turn.

The book is full of such twists as the lives of Evelyn and Martine become deeply intertwined. We see glimpses into the failing relationship between Evelyn and her husband, and snapshots of his more ideal life with Martine.

From the start, Gailey adds emotional depth, forcing us to ask ourselves how we would feel if a loved one opted for a version of us they had designed to be “perfect”. Details of Evelyn’s childhood add extra layers to a character already struggling with thoughts of being unloved, unappreciated and literally replaceable.

The science and technology in the book isn’t too far-fetched – it is possible to create cloned embryos from adult human cells – but in reality it is harder and takes far longer. Instead of using an embryo and surrogate, as with Dolly the sheep, Evelyn works with large tanks holding the nutrients needed for a growing clone. The embryology of cloning is slightly glossed over, but Gailey adds enough detail about Evelyn’s work to make the science seem believable.

One of the most interesting aspects of cloning, both in the book and in the real world, is the ethics behind the technology. Martine reminds us that there is a risk of it being misused.

Novel neural programming that can affect personality has also been developed in the world in which the novel is set, which accounts for the main distinction between the two women: Martine is more obedient and passive than Evelyn. She also has different wants and needs. She is Evelyn – but a little altered. In a Blade Runner-esque style, Gailey asks us to consider whether clones are just as human as us by showing Martine growing, learning and questioning her own existence.

Clearly, the idea of programming a brain to think a certain way is a stretch. Although we can grow mini brains in a lab, manipulating a developing brain is unlikely to be effective, or possible, in reality. But this aspect of the story is used more as a device to expose the twisted motivations of the characters and to raise issues about the purpose of cloning.

As well as having a fascinating storyline, the book gives us realistic insights into the pressures of being a female scientist: how research has to be fought for and how women in science must have impossibly thick skin. Overall, The Echo Wife is an emotionally driven novel that leaves us both hopeful and afraid of the potential of cloning technology.

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