Monday, February 18, 2008

Here Come The Clones

This appeared in the February 18th issue of Tehelka.

GENERATION 14 Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Literary dystopias usually feature faceless, totalitarian regimes that crush dissent and redefine what it means to be human. As such, they’re perfect cautionary tales for writers to pose their Big Questions: What are the mechanics of power? (Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s We). What are the perils of creating an ‘ideal’ society? (Huxley’s Brave New World). How is feminism subverted? (Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

It’s into this category that Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Generation 14 falls. Though there are several digressive sections in this novel that could more properly be termed speculative or fantastical, the framework is clearly science fiction. The necessary questions the author raises – at times too conspicuously -- revolve around the meaning of a shared humanity and the necessity of plurality of expression.

Set primarily in the 24th century, the novel concerns the fate of a clone in a manner quite different from Ishiguro’s poignant Never Let Me Go. Here, we encounter Clone 14/54/G, the fourteenth copy of an “Original” who begins to mutate by recollecting memories – having “visitations”, as she puts it – of incidents in times past. As a member of a sanitised and stratified Global Community comprising Originals, Superior Zombies, Firehearts and other Clones, she’s viewed with suspicion by the reigning powers until they realise that this may help clear up a long-standing mystery. It turns out that her Original, an iconoclastic anthropologist, was killed during her speech at a great celebration just before she was to reveal an important secret. Her clone, by channeling the Original’s sense and memory impressions, may stumble upon this secret too, and the regime starts to coddle her in various ingenious ways. As is common in such novels, there’s underground resistance towards the supreme power, and members of this movement contact the clone, winning her over to their side.

So far, so ingenious. Sarukkai-Chabria has clearly immersed herself in this new world’s features as well as in the behaviour and treatment of its citizens. The section after this build-up contains the Original’s own musings, which end just before the address she is to make. This serves to deepen our understanding of the Clone’s predicament.

At this point, though, Generation 14 takes a dismaying structural turn, with several long, anecdotal reports of the “visitations” themselves. Drawn from India’s past, these are first-person accounts by, among others, a parrot in a nawabi Lucknow household, a meditative fish caught up in a Kashi flood, a bereaved mother after Ashoka’s Kalinga war, and a wolf-dog journeying southward with his master to vanquish local tribes. Most are linked by unexpected and violent acts and the penalties to be paid. The intention, of course, is to demonstrate plurality, but though the author displays considerable chutzpah in writing these narratives, they serve as an extended and annoyingly lengthy digression from the Clone’s fate.

Sarukkai-Chabria is also a poet, and this is evident from the prose she employs, which is resonant and allusive. At times, this rises to an exalted, almost Vedic, pitch and this, it must be said, becomes hard to digest when extended for too long.

As for the novel’s climax, this is less vividly realised than the rest of the book: there is an overtness, a spelling out of themes, that jars. Take this sentence, for example, uttered by one of the clone’s chief allies: “What if there is, again, the possibility of plurality of expression and belief? And justice? If there could be acceptance of difference, Clone, what boundlessness then…what creativity!”

There is much imaginative depth and richness to be found in Generation 14; equally, there’s an eagerness to over-extend the ambit as well as overstate the case, which makes it less compelling than it could have been.

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