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Duplicates (2010): You Take Two Steps Forward, I Take Two Steps Back

Sara Samarasinghe, Duplicates (iTeen Books, 2010)

full disclosure: a copy of this book was sent to me free by the author.

Sterling and Sydney grace the book's cover.

We come together ’cause opposites attract.
photo credit: tower.com

I have reviewed a couple of Sara Samarasinghe’s books in the past. (I should have reviewed this one much earlier than I am. Ms. Samarasinghe was kind enough to fire me off a copy in the mail back in the dark ages of 2011. It got misplaced in a move and I didn’t find it again until last month.) So some of this is likely to sound familiar, if you’ve read those reviews. On the other hand, there is more to say about Duplicates, as of this writing Samarasinghe’s most recent novel. She’s not there yet, but there was a breakthrough here that was much-needed.

Plot: in a not-too-far-future America, the world is divided into two. “Normal” humans live in huge above-ground city-states; their duplicates live underground. Science has mastered the art of human cloning, and now every newborn is cloned. If something happens to the person in the above-ground world (short, one assumes, of dying of old age), the duplicate is recruited to take his or her place (or provide replacement parts, which is mentioned but never explored in detail. Parts: The Clonus Horror this ain’t). As we open, the hosts of a number of close-knit duplicates all have their stars rising at the same time. Sterling has just been elected leaser of her above-ground city-state; Sydney, her duplicate, is one of the most popular coeds in the duplicates’ underground city. While she’s worried about her relationship with socialite Dante, who seems to live for nothing but synthetic alcohol and clubbing, there’s no denying the two of them make a fine-looking couple. Dante’s primary, Damon, is the leader of those same scientists, and Damon takes an interest in Sterling. But is that interest purely romantic, or are there ulterior motives? In the world of high-power politics, anything is possible…

The big thing here: I mentioned in those previous reviews that Samarasinghe’s conflicts often felt shallow and were very easily overcome with a bit of conversation. Such is not the case in Duplicates. Samarasinghe has attempted to tackle big, complex conflicts before (Broken Angel is about decimated familial relationships and alcohol abuse), but the characters’ reactions to those issues never went below the surface. Here Samarasinghe takes as her theme science run rampant, and she is far more willing to examine the implications of that theme in detail. This makes the book’s central theme feel much more weighty than that in Broken Angel, even if that theme is far less intimate. The predictable, and very welcome, side effect is that Samarasinghe’s characters had to grow in complexity to match the theme, and she pulled it off. Sterling, Sydney, and crew are the best characters Samarasinghe has written to date.

The downside is that, like a gawky teenaged boy who’s sprung up to six-three without gaining an ounce and is still learning that you can’t get around at six-three the same way you could at five-seven, these central pieces of the book have outstripped some of the ancillary parts of the novel-writing process in Duplicates. Samarasinghe has always taken the “less is more” path where romance is concerned. It’s not a bad approach to take when romance isn’t a key factor in your books, but it felt wrong in Broken Angel and it feels wrong here; after all, the romance between Dante/Damon and Sydney/Sterling is a major factor in the way things turn out (trying not to be too spoily here). We’re invested in the characters, but we never get invested in their emotional interactions on any positive level. Because of that, and because the gawkiness tends to bleed over into the portions of the book where it doesn’t otherwise exist (e.g., the spot-on pacing), it is not as good a book as it could have been. This in no way means you shouldn’t read it, but it’s the kind of book you will get far more out of if you are the kind of person who can listen to a badly-dubbed third generation bootleg of your favorite band and auto-correct it in your head to sound wonderful. ** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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