Inez Kissena Fardo, known as "I," is a scruffy street urchin, a ragged teenaged survivor in a post-pandemic world. She survives by selling parts of her body—her blood, eggs, teeth, and more—to people who believe they can buy her natural immunity to the diseases that are killing millions around the globe. She has no family, little education, and no prospects, and when we meet her she’s working a shady gig as a courier, running who knows what to who knows whom. I doesn’t care. She just wants to get out of Queens.
I am glad to be on a trip. I never even been to this side of the river. I been to Pennsylvania. Once. Well, I think I been in Connecticut. But the van they took me in did not have windows. (p. 7)
I starts out raw and rough-edged, but it quickly becomes clear that while she might not have much worldly experience or book learning, she’s smart and resourceful, and above all curious. When a band of underground scientists and a rich, bereaved mother propose to illegally clone her, she agrees for two reasons: cash and curiosity.
I did need the money, but I never gave any thought before why I do these things? I gave it now.
"I like to see what happens," I told Rini.
And I could see her eyes change when I said that, like, would someone do these terrible things just to see what happens? Then they change again, like, ok. There are worse things. "In school," I told Rini, "one of the Sisters said I could of passed, if I did the work." (p. 63)
It’s I's curiosity that lands her with an infant clone, Ani, whom she raises solo as her daughter over the next twenty years. In that time, I changes from a scrappy, thoughtless teenager to a weary single parent. She's up against not only unending waves of killer plague and her fear that Ani might not have her own practically unheard-of level of immunity, but also the social fallout from a crumbling world. Good government is a thing of the past. What's left is a haphazard mishmash of brutality (random street-level raids by armed soldiers), indifference (whole cities are abandoned to their fates), and incompetence (the vestiges of the country's health and education systems hurt people more often than they help them.) Not to mention random X-factors like the Knights of Life, fundamentalist vigilantes who terrorize rural areas on horseback, torching the kinds of underground research labs that created Ani, and murdering anyone they take a dislike to.
Somewhere in the course of all of this, I becomes a particular kind of hero—a single working mother who understands all too well the place that she and Ani are supposed to occupy in the world. The Only Ones is at least in part the story of a woman declining to accept the role she's been handed—declining to be silenced, suppressed, used up and cast aside. It's the story of a woman determined to live as well as she can in the broken world she has, for her own sake as well as for her daughter's.
For all the plot and worldbuilding in this book—and there’s plenty of both—the real drive train is I's voice. She’s funny and stubborn and heartbreaking—sometimes baffled, sometimes resigned, often exhausted. She's by turns knowing and naive, toughing her way through everyday cruelties and crises, and then fumbling to understand when people show her unexpected kindness.
It's not easy being I. It's hard enough just surviving in her world, let alone raising an illegal clone version of herself and grappling with all the existential implications of that. Much of the book is given over to the daily, weekly, and yearly grind of parenting in poverty, with some of the most everyday family crises given new humor and pathos by I's voice and the post-apocalyptic backdrop.
The first day of school, they let me go in with her through the Lock and to the door of East Side Girls, where the guard sprayed us with antiPatho and checked her South Brother tests all over again before they let us in. This guard has a gun. So this is an arm guard! . . . Ani was stiff like wood. But I was proud. She doesn’t have Special Needs any more! She has regular Needs! So ha ha ha. You have to take her now. (p. 247)
The end of the world may come and go, but parenting goes on, Dibbell reminds us. So do the petty annoyances, the little trials and delays and screw-ups that can sometimes make all the difference in a child's life. Any parent who has done battle with an inept or indifferent school bureaucracy will crow with delight when I succeeds in mainstreaming Ani. Any mother who has had to listen to strangers offer unasked-for infant-feeding advice on the street, any father who has withstood a toddler's obnoxious phase of repeating everything you say, any parent who has tiptoed through the minefield of life with a middle-school-aged girl will see themselves in I and Ani.
This close, fond attention to I and Ani's relationship puts The Only Ones in a class by itself, apocalyptically speaking. It's like a mashup of Gilmore Girls and Children of Men. The world is falling to pieces, whole cities are dying of horrible plagues, the human race is dying out—but what this book cares about is I, selling blood on the black market to buy Ani the backpack that will help her fit in at school. It's I wondering if she’ll die in a fire when Ani turns ten, because Ani is I all over again and that’s how I's own foster mother died. It's I getting up at midnight to make sure that infant Ani is still breathing, like any new parent does. And it's the litany I repeats for twenty years, watching Ani go from infant to toddler to girl to young woman. Still alive. The words are triumphant and defiant and ordinary. Somehow, against all odds, I manages to do what nobody else can: to give Ani a life, her own life, in a world where almost everyone is dying.
I is a woman, so this is necessarily apocalypse from a woman’s point of view. But because there’s no such thing as a monolithic "woman’s point of view," Dibbell's end-of-the-world doesn’t look the same as Margaret Atwood's in The Handmaid’s Tale or Octavia Butler's in The Parable of the Sower. Like Offred, I survives by the skin of her ovaries. Like Lauren Olamina, she’s a caretaker. And like both of them, I struggles to live in a world built by men for men, a world that is always harder on women and their bodies. But Dibbell's story adds the Ishiguroesque element of cloning, creating a kind of infinity mirror between Ani and I. If Ani is I’s duplicate, raised in the same poverty and chaos, does she have any chance at a better life? Can I, through her sheer grit and endurance and endless punishing labor, make a better life for Ani? And by extension, is there hope for any woman to lift herself up in this world?
Ani and I may be immune to disease, but they're not immune to the chaos and violence of their shattered world. Heartbreaking, irrevocable things happen to them. Dibbell pulls no punches, and throws in at least one truly jaw-breaking sneaker hook at the end of the story. But at the end of the day I, formerly the scruffy, curious street kid, is ready to take the tools of life into her own hands. Her story, we learn, has not been told not exactly to us, but to another "only one," or maybe more than one, whom she hopes someday to meet.
I’m not even saying I’m sure you will even get this message—if the pure code will work or if you even got the scanners to read where you live. I’m just saying I will keep checking back, see what happens, forever. (p. 354)
Karen Munro's writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is working on a novel about strange things in the Pacific Northwest. In October she will send you a scary story a day. You can find her at http://munrovian.tumblr.com.