It may be obvious from reading some of my previous reviews that I really enjoy books in which authors successfully blend elements of detective fiction into their speculative fiction. Six Wakes (2017), by Mur Lafferty, folds the concept of a locked-room mystery into a generation-ship tale, much to my delight.
Six Wakes begins when Maria Arena, a clone, comes to consciousness in the cloning bay of the Dormire and discovers that the exterior of her clone-vat is smeared with blood. All of the six-person crew — including her previous iteration — have been viciously attacked, leaving grisly remains and destroyed equipment from stem to stern. The ship’s gravity has been turned off, the AI is nonresponsive, and their course has been rerouted from a trajectory taking them to a new home in the Tau Ceti system; instead, Dormire is now headed back toward Earth. Worst of all, neither Maria nor any of the other crew members can remember the events leading up to their deaths. Any one of them could be responsible, and if they can’t figure out what happened and why, they may have no way of stopping it from happening again. Lafferty is definitely not playing a low-stakes game here.
The year is 2493, and clones are as commonplace as cell phones or life-insurance policies are today. Naturally, such technology provides endless opportunities to wreak social and legal havoc, so a strictly binding list of codicils was drawn up in 2282 to govern the legal rights of any cloned individual. In this glorious future, a wealthy and influential woman named Sallie Mignon has spearheaded the campaign to colonize Artemis, an Earthlike planet in the Cetus constellation. The cleverly-named Dormire (“sleep”) carries a few thousand colonists in its hibernation bays, tended by a skeleton crew of six clones and a ship-wide artificial intelligence. As Dormire makes the long journey from one star system to another, the crew will live out normal lifespans, transferring their memories into newly-hatched adult clones once their bodies reach old age and die.
This six-person crew, while comprised entirely of clones, is not just six copies of one individual, and each of them has a distinct personality and specific purpose on the ship. Captain Katrina de la Cruz is a no-nonsense former solider; second-in-command and security officer Wolfgang is the only Luna-born member; pilot/navigator Akihiro “Hiro” Sato deflects stress with humor; computer engineer Paul Seurat is an introvert more comfortable with code than conversation; ship’s doctor Joanna Glass has a warm, reassuring manner; and Maria herself is a bit of a catch-all, serving as cook, janitor, or handyman as needed. Each of them were specifically chosen for this mission because of their criminal pasts, though their prior misdeeds are unknown to everyone but themselves, creating a spectacular level of paranoia and mistrust from the very first page of Six Wakes.
As their current circumstances unfold and the crew works to repair the ship, sleeping with one eye open, Lafferty fills the reader in on their various histories, sometimes stepping backward a few centuries in order to reveal pertinent information. It’s worth paying attention to every detail, as even the most inconsequential-seeming moment can ripple forward and affect the future in unexpected ways. Providing certain information to the reader and keeping the characters in the dark works to Lafferty’s advantage, since she doesn’t give anyone’s entire story away until the explosive climax, where she lays every card on the table. I had figured a few small things out here and there on my own, but I definitely didn’t anticipate the biggest reveals or how she would bring it all together.
Though the resolution relies a little too hard on coincidence and liberal application of deus ex machina, the majority of Six Wakes is intriguing, inventive, and kept me guessing from one page to the next. Lafferty raises questions regarding ethics and personhood while expanding upon tried-and-true tropes, and the futuristic world she’s crafted feels wholly credible. Whether as a stand-alone or the beginning of a thrilling new series, Six Wakes is an entertaining read.