Book Review: The Clone Sedition
by Steven L. Kent
Ace Science Fiction, 2012
Given the low esteem in which science fiction is held as a literary genre, given how quick people who haven’t read it are to dismiss it as derivative, it’s a brave (or foolish) sci-fi author indeed who’d center a long series of books with near-identical titles around a bunch of clones. Steven Kent is just that brave (or … you know), and his latest book, The Clone Sedition, stars, like all his others, a bunch of clones. Specifically, the Enlisted Man’s Empire of the 26th Century, a vast fighting confederacy manned entirely by combat clones grown and raised in factories euphemistically called “orphanages.” These clones once faithfully served the Unified Authority during that Earth-based government’s system-spanning conflict with the invading alien Atavari, but when, in the flush of apparent victory, the U.A. seemed to turn its back on the clones, the clones took their destiny into their own hands, attacked Earth, overthrew the U.A., and established their own rule – with their clone leader, Wayson Harris (an elite kind of killer-clone called a Liberator, equipped with superior body chemistry and combat reflexes and given extensive military training), as the man in charge.
As a more-or-less cohesive saga of an embattled minority’s slow and fitful rise to dominance, Kent’s seven-volume Clone Republic saga seemed to have a beginning, middle, and – in the planting of the Enlisted Man’s Empire’s flag on the homeworld of their erstwhile oppressors – end. To many readers, it seemed like a perfectly organic point at which to end the saga and move on to other kinds of sci-fi. Those readers were completely outnumbered by fans of the series (among which we can fairly confidently number Kent himself), however – and so, here’s The Clone Sedition.
The story picks up basically where the series left things: the Enlisted Men’s Empire has established itself on Earth and set up a relatively fair government – the clones are not vindictive overlords to their normal-human subjects. The Atavari have been defeated, but political unrest is fomenting everywhere – especially the colony at Mars Spaceport, which is teeming with clone-hating religious fundamentalist fanatics. Harris himself is attacked by three Bible-carrying assailants in the first chapter of The Clone Sedition, and although he manages to kill his opponents (rather easily, as per his design specs), the encounter has left him more aware than ever of the tensions of his new situation. He thinks of Travis Watson, his new civilian advisor:
I had hired him because he was smart, competent, and natural-born. I needed a natural-born aide to help interface with the civilian population. Having recently been conquered by the all-clone military, a lot of people were wary of clones. Go figure.
And Travis, for his part, has ideas just as tense when he contemplates what might happen if the matchless soldiers of the Enlisted Man’s Empire were somehow turned to evil:
He imagine an army of clones, all of them with long incisions across their skulls and bald spots where the hair would never grow. He imagined an army of zombies and laughed it off.
Then Watson considered the ramifications and the ugly possibilities – a shadow government controlling the synthetic government that appointed Earth’s puppet government.
This is not some outlandish fantasy, it turns out: the drama of The Clone Sedition takes a decided sharp-angle turn from the space alien battle-antics of the previous books and veers instead into areas of social philosophy, brainwashing, and insurrection. This is a far more psychological book than any of the earlier volumes, and all its heroes have dark dreams. Harris is eventually captured by members of the fanatical group Legion, which attempts to re-program him in a series of brutally-realized torture scenes that will make many readers uncomfortably recall the photos from Abu Ghraib. During an escape attempt, he stares into a ‘moon pool’ exposed to the deep sea and imagines the terrors lurking there:
As a teenager, I studied biology in the orphanage, but that class had more to do with venereal disease than fish. The instructor mentioned something about sharks and giant squid. I imagined a squid staring up at me through the darkness, a bit one, something sixty feet long with tentacles the size of fire hoses. I imagined it blending into the shadows, staring up at me from the darkness, ready to pull me into the inky depths. Ready to hold my body with two tentacles while tearing off each of my limbs with the others.
If you watch how that little moment escalates so rapidly from memory to speculation to dismemberment, you have the appeal of these books in a nutshell: Kent is a shameless orchestrator of adolescent wish-fulfilment. His central “Liberator”-model clones – “designed to fight an unknown enemy in the unexplored center of the galaxy” – are hyper-amplified Marines (as one of them points out, “I don’t get paid to think. I’m a Marine. I get paid to kill people and break things”), and virtually every chapter of every one of these books features at least some tense action-sequences, often elaborately well-done.
The Clone Sedition has much less of the gaudy space opera that animated the previous books, but it’s actually the stronger for the lack; space-battles and planet-hopping are all well and good (and hardly anybody writing today does them better than this author), but conflicts of the heart and head are always more interesting. Kent promises at least one further sequel in this series that he’d planned to end with the previous book; readers can hope that sequel will be a lot like The Clone Sedition.