Combining the uncanny valley of the doppelganger with more philosophical questions about what it means to be human and how we define personhood, the best books on cloning—my personal favorites being The House of the Scorpion (2002), The Prestige (1995), and Lever Let Me Go (2005)—force us to confront ourselves in the funhouse mirror of cognitive estrangement. Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife (2020) reaches into this upper echelon of thought-provoking speculative fiction with seemingly effortless grace. The Echo Wife is a subtle knife, cutting so finely we may at first miss its depth. The prose appears quiet, clean, and spare, but—as in the laboratory in which many of the novel’s events take place—that sterile appearance is belied by a pulsing, tearing energy which occasionally lashes out.
The text opens with our main character, Evelyn, at a gala honoring her groundbreaking work in biology. A research scientist who has created synthetic amniotic fluid, Evelyn has continued to forge forwards into the rapid growing of human tissues, organs, bones, and—eventually—full clones. It is this final stage which has earned her these honors. “The process of taking an adult clone and writing their personality into their neurological framework,” she notes, “was mine. All mine” (p. 15), and the resonance of that possessive claim with the Tolkienian “my own, my precious,” hints at the seduction and dangers of such power. And yet, despite the accolades and attention of the evening, Evelyn is profoundly alone, for her husband has left her—not just for a younger woman, but for a younger, “better” version of Evelyn whom he has secretly created and named Martine.
The word “clone” doesn’t appear in the novel until chapter six, well after Evelyn has confronted Martine, and part of the reading pleasure comes from the mystery of why Martine is so achingly, wrongly familiar to Evelyn. Yet when readers experience the shock of recognition it is as but a small frisson of delight, a starter to the main course of Evelyn’s facing the externalized manifestation of all those parts of herself that her ex-husband, Nathan, had made her feel were deficient. Here is his idealized version of Evelyn: a tame, docile woman created to fulfil his need for gratification, to bolster his feeble smallness in the shadow of his more successful wife. Martine reminds Evelyn of her mother, who was similarly timid; the difference is that Evelyn’s mother could choose otherwise—and eventually did, as we ultimately discover—whereas Martine has been conditioned to be unable to want more than to please Nathan. To add to the insult, and the drama, Martine is pregnant—despite Evelyn’s careful genetic construction to ensure clones could never reproduce—with the child that Evelyn refused to have. “I thought he’d given up on all that,” she notes. “But as it turned out, he hadn’t given up on that dream at all. He had just given up on me” (p. 40).
Events become even more challenging, bordering on sordid, when Martine kills Nathan in self-defense, and Evelyn faces a better-of-two-evils decision: allow her entire life’s work, and everything she sacrificed to build it, to be destroyed—that is, do the “right” thing of reporting the crime—or use her skills and experience at the creation and disposal of human tissue to protect Martine and herself? It’s a classic case of deontological ethics v. consequentialism: is an action right or wrong inherently, or do the outcomes determine their moral value? If you’re familiar with the trolley problem, or have seen the meme based off it, you’ll recognize Evelyn’s conundrum: both choices require sacrifice; both require her to live with whatever decision she makes.
Evelyn chooses to help Martine get rid of the body—and clone and condition a new “Nathan” to replace the dead one—in order to protect her research and career. What is most interesting about this plot is not just that Evelyn decides to help Martine, and brings her into her lab and home—into her life—in order to protect their secret; this was practically a narrative requirement for Evelyn’s conflict to continue developing. Rather, it’s the way the text juxtaposes simple domestic moments between the two—them sharing a bed in Evelyn’s new flat, Martine unpacking Evelyn’s boxes and organizing her bookshelves, the two women eating meals together—with chilling reminders of Evelyn’s studied inhumanity. Clones, she remarks early in the text, are “temporary, and when they stop being useful, they become biomedical waste. They are disposable” (p. 46). She repeatedly calls them specimens or subjects; she thinks of Martine as a thing, something “made this way, and the only thing for me to do was deal with her until I could get her out of the way” (p. 77). Slowly we realize the full weight of what the “conditioning” of clones requires: if they’re meant to look like a body double, it means breaking, cutting, abrading—reproducing all the lasting remnants of injury from across a life onto a helpless and unconscious human subject. Frequently it means euthanizing and disposing of unsuccessful “candidates.” Faced with the realities of these ethics, her lab assistants rarely last six months.
If Evelyn is our main character, Martine is the real star of the show. She initially comes across as somewhat Stepfordian, and intentionally so: she’s a manufactured person, conditioned to be the perfect wife. One example, unsettling in its quotidian omnipresence, is that Martine is physically unable to nap; she can only sleep between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., even after giving birth and caring for an infant round the clock. But Martine begins to exert her own agency, begins to push back against her conditioning. At first this manifests in small ways:
She pursed her lips at me and stood there for several seconds before turning her back on the tank and joining me at our table. It was something she’d begun doing—taking time before following instructions. Putting space between my request and her response.
It was uniquely infuriating to me.
She wasn’t supposed to be able to fight her programming like that. She wasn’t supposed to change. Neurocognitive programming was intended to be static, immovable, and the fact that Martine was starting to shift hers felt like a direct insult to the integrity of my work. (p. 122)
A few pages later Martine is described as “imitating the anger she’d seen before, seeing if it fit the way she was feeling” (p. 127). Evelyn’s walls won’t come down entirely until Martine discovers a dozen bodies in her backyard, previous versions of Evelyn/Martine whom Nathan had killed and disposed of. The certainty that the original Nathan had intended to kill both Martine and Evelyn unites them, but it’s Martine’s insistence that the new Nathan clone has to die, too, despite Evelyn wanting her greatest creation to be a living testament of her work, which makes Evelyn finally see Martine as a fully actualized person rather than merely a made, conditioned thing: “I had started to think of her as a person. And I couldn’t stop” (p. 195). And so too for readers.
The novel ends with Evelyn and Martine living together in her (their?) childhood home in the country. There are overlapping layers of circularity here—childhood and adulthood meeting again; Evelyn the scientist who, like her father before her, inhabits the study and keeps strict rules while living alongside Martine-the-mother who builds her life around Evelyn’s requirements; the rosebushes in the garden which cover the body of Evelyn’s father, much like rosebushes cover Nathan and the dozen failed clones of Evelyn at Martine’s former house. In those plants is an implied threat to Evelyn from Martine that has pervaded much of the text. For example, after successfully creating and conditioning the new Nathan, Evelyn reflects:
I wondered if I was close enough with anyone that they would have seen the same differences in me. If I had been replaced with a reasonable facsimile of the person I’d been, would anyone notice? Martine, I thought. Martine would notice. She was close enough to me, had spent enough time with me, had seen me in a raw enough state—she knew the marrow of me. (p. 169)
At the time, this carries echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), as though Martine might take over Evelyn’s life in much the same way that the new Nathan has replaced the original. And while that sense of unease never fully dissipates, there is something squeamishly complete about the life they make together: “Martine and I are in my parents' old bedroom, a new mattress on an old bedframe, and at night, we sleep with our backs to each other. Sometimes I wake up in the night and hear her breathing; more often, I wake up and can’t hear her breathing at all. I can’t hear it because it’s too perfectly synced with my own” (p. 220).
Science fiction is often that genre which shows us the face of a stranger and shocks us by revealing it as our own. Gailey has done that beautifully here, and ironically—for the vision comes from Evelyn looking into her own face on another person and recognizing someone else. Martine may literally be the titular echo wife, but this book is far more than just that literal surface: Gailey plays with the distortions that come from echoes, the estrangements that develop as each iteration falls farther from the source, and shows how those very differences can be orchestrated into a powerfully moving dissonance—one where the individuals stand out rather than blend in to the harmony, forcing us to re-cognize that we, too, contain multitudes.