The Original by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette KowalThe Original by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal

The Original by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette KowalHolly wakes up in the hospital. Her last memory is being at a party with Jonathan, her husband. The party was for a potter and she remembers being thrilled to actually be able to touch the clay – something real to feel and even deconstruct. She has no idea how she ended up in the hospital, and it takes a while to get some answers, but finally she learns that she has been cloned as a Provisional Replica because her real self (her Original) murdered her husband. She has four days to find her Original and bring it to justice.

Holly is confused because not only does she not remember killing her husband, but she loves him, they get along great, and the goriness of the murder doesn’t sound like her style. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that she is the culprit. As a provisional clone, Holly’s genes have been edited to give her the kinds of skills she needs to hunt down and kill herself (she wonders if this is murder or suicide?). If she succeeds, she can take the place of her original and, if she wants to, she can also choose to revive Jonathan.

Another consequence of being a provisional clone is that she is now “unthemed,” meaning that she sees the world as it really is, and not with the personal filters that most everyone else uses to enhance their drab reality. There are some people, however, who choose to live without themes. These include people who “check out” of normal society and also terrorists who are concerned about privacy and actively work against the government. Jonathan used to study people who check out. He knew important things about the theming technology and Holly wonders if terrorists have framed her for a murder they committed.

The Original, a 3.5 hour-long audio story written by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, has a fascinating premise. Holly’s task is daunting – how is she supposed to outsmart herself in four days? And what if her Original was framed and didn’t commit the murder? Then, who did, and why? If she lets her Original go free, what will happen to herself? If she replaces the Original and revives Jonathan, would he even know her? Because she’s been edited by the government, she’s no longer the same person who married him. How can she be sure her memories, emotions, and morals are the same as the Original’s?

These kinds of questions are what Sanderson and Kowal handle so well in The Original. Holly’s predicament is riveting and the societal and ethical dilemmas she encounters are thought-provoking.

Other aspects of the story are not as effective, however. While the idea of theming is interesting, thought-provoking, and essential to the plot, it was hard to believe in a society where everyone had their own interpretation of the physical space around them. They actually see different structures in their environment. Why is that desirable and how would that work? There wasn’t enough explanation of how the world got that way or why people were willing to tolerate living in a society where everyone didn’t experience the same physical reality and where they must artificially augment their surroundings to make them livable. Holly is horrified to discover what the world is really like, but it seems unlikely that she didn’t already know this, especially when she mentioned at the beginning that she was so excited to touch real clay. Sanderson and Kowal could have convinced me to believe in this world, but they didn’t manage it in this short novel.

Also unlikely were some of the actions Holly took to try to track down her Original. It involved a lot of guesswork, bad logic, silly strategies by both the Original and the cloned versions of Holly, and even literal rolling of dice. This was the part of the story that I had the most trouble with.

However, The Original is action-packed and ends with a twist that totally surprised me. Overall, despite seriously straining my willingness to believe, I have to say that The Original was entertaining all the way through.

So far, this novella is available only in audio format from Recorded Books. Julia Whelan’s narration is terrific. Too bad the producers included the occasional annoying and unnecessary sound effects.

Published in September 2020. Hugo Award-winning authors Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal team up in this exclusive audio-first production of The Original, a sci-fi thriller set in a world where one woman fights to know her true identity and survive the forces that threaten her very existence. In the near future, humans choose life – for a price. Injectable nanite technology is the lifeblood that flows through every individual wishing to experience the world through the lens of their own theme. While death from mortal wounds is still possible, life is made easier in a socially liberated society where automation and income equality allow passion pursuits to flourish over traditional work. Renewal stations are provided to every law-abiding citizen for weekly check-ins, which issue life-sustaining repairs in exchange for personal privacy. But what becomes of those who check out, of those who dare to resist immortality and risk being edited under the gaze of an identity-extracting government surveillance system? When Holly Winseed wakes up in a hospital room, her memory compromised and a new identity imposed on her, a team of government agents wastes no time stating their objective. With intent to infiltrate and defeat the terrorist group ICON, the agents tell Holly that she is now a Provisional Replica and has one week to hunt down and kill her Original for the murder of her husband, Jonathan. If she succeeds, she’ll assume her Original’s place in society. If she fails, her life will end. Holly’s progress is monitored by an assigned contact that feeds her information as she confronts the blank, robotic world around her, discovering that others view life through the theme of their own choosing. With her newly implanted combat and deduction skills, Holly fends off both attacks by terrorists and doubts about her own trustworthiness as clues lead her to her Original – and to the truth about Jonathan. In the end, one body remains and one walks away. Although questions persist, one thing is certain: Life will never be the same.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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