Clone by Richard Cowper
Pocket Books, 1979
Price I paid: 90¢
Spawned in a dangerous 21st-century experiment, they were brought into a world where educated apes did manual labor and the government encouraged suicide as a method of population control.
Their existence as clones was unknown to anyone―even to each other―known only to their creator.
But then came the strange, haunting visions, the peculiar psychic sensations that drew them closer and closer together―revealing once and for all the mysterious secret they shared that would change the world!
CW: This book had a lot of really gross sexual stuff in it, including rape. If you wanna skip this review, I understand.
This is my second dive into the world of Richard Cowper, also known as John Middleton Murry, Jr. I was first introduced to him via The Road to Corlay, a book that I found both challenging and hauntingly beautiful. I wondered what the deal with Clone was going to be. Just based on the cover, you can tell that the premise is going to be very different. In fact, the whole genre looks to be different. Whereas The Road to Corlay might best be described as a fantasy set in the far future, Clone looks like it’s going to be a sci-fi spy thriller with clones in it.
You know that old chestnut about judging a book by its cover? Well, you and I know that 95% of the time that saying is bunk. The cover of the book is part of the book. It was designed, intentionally placed there, as much a part of the book as the text, the font, and the layout.
I was almost going to say that Clone falls into the other 5%, but I’m going to preëmptively take that back. Am I allowed to do that? I don’t care. This is my blog and I’ll grammar how I want.
The cover of this novel makes it look like some kind of a spy thriller, maybe somewhere along the lines of James Bond meets Number 6, with a touch of Logan’s Run thrown in for good measure. Also there’s a redheaded lady who isn’t wearing very much. Now, it turns out that almost all that is completely wrong, but we can still judge the book after the fact for that information. More specifically, I think we can judge the publisher, who once again took a thoughtful British book and tried to sex it up for the American paperback market.
Clone was, I’m told, Cowper’s first success in the United States. I’d wonder how much that has to do with this deceptive cover, but this edition came out seven years after the first edition did.
That said, I do like this cover art a lot. I don’t know who did it, and neither does the ISFDB, so I guess the truth is lost to time.
So it turns out that the novel isn’t any kind of spy thriller at all. It’s a satire. And not a satire of spy thrillers. Just a regular old satire that makes fun of England in the present by setting us up with an England 100 years in the future. I’m still not sure if Cowper was trying to satirize anything in particular or if he was just generally taking the piss. That’s partly because I didn’t realize it was satire until about halfway through.
We start by meeting Alvin. Alvin is a simple young man, good-natured, sweet, and a bit dumb. He works at a Hydrological Station somewhere in England, and when we first meet him, he’s just had a vision.
He describes his vision to his best friend, an intelligent chimpanzee named Norbert. Norbert is just one of lots and lots of intelligent apes, who have been uplifted to provide an efficient workforce for a severely overpopulated humanity. I wish I could say that it was at this revelation that I knew the book was meant to be satirical, but I can’t say that. I just took it at face value. Still, it’s important to note what Cowper is saying here, even if I didn’t catch it the first time around: The world is more full of humans than it ever has been, yet to get any work done they have to create intelligent apes to do it.
I didn’t get a good idea of the world population from the text, but I do know that England’s population in the year 2072 is 350 million. This is roughly seven times the current population.
So Alvin has this vision/hallucination of a beautiful red-haired girl with vibrant green eyes. She fades away almost as quickly as she appeared. He tells Norbert about it, who gets worried and tells the people who run this Hydrological Station.
This is where things start to get weird and problematic. They get a lot more problematic later, so hold on to your butts.
Alvin’s vision is brought to the attention of a Dr. Somervell, one of the higher-ups at the plant. I don’t actually remember what she’s supposed to do, but one of her duties is to keep an eye on Alvin’s development. She says that this vision is obviously a result of Alvin’s libido, which is odd because he was supposed to be “libido-null,” and that something must have gone wrong with this personality screening. She prepares to send him back to Croydon, where the Ministry of Procreation is, but before she does that, she decides that she’ll get some use out of him. See, there’s another doctor at the plant that she’s been boning for a little while, but he seems to have lost interest. She decides to make him jealous by taking advantage of Alvin, who in his sweet naiveté, has no idea what’s going on. So yeah, she rapes him, and then when they’re discovered, she berates him for taking advantage of her.
This book’s primary sin is that it is very, very glib on the subject of rape. It’s kind of a joke, and it’s really goddamn gross. There’s another character who has a rape in her backstory, and it’s more or less brought up so that when’s she’s triggered by the memory it can be played for laughs. Yet another character gets gang-raped and then sort of shrugs it off as no big deal.
I don’t know if all this was supposed to be part of the satire, but if it is, what the hell is it satirizing?
Alvin and Norbert head out to meet Dr. Poynter of the Ministry of Procreation. We’re told in flashback about how Alvin was created. It turns out that Dr. Poynter is his creator, as well as the creator of his brothers Bruce, Colin, and Desmond. We’re never told exactly what Dr. Poynter was hoping to do, but she fertilized the egg of a woman with an eidetic memory with the sperm of a man with eidetic memory, whereupon she split the blastocyst to create quadruplets.
The book consistently calls Alvin and his brothers clones, although I’ve never heard of a clone created in that way. If anything, they’re just artificial quadruplets created in the old-fashioned sperm-and-egg way, albeit in a test tube.
The four brothers show some remarkable abilities, including teleportation, so Dr. Poynter, in a moment of panic, wipes their minds and sends them off to the corners of the Earth. Alvin has no memory of any of this until about midway through the book, when it spontaneously comes back.
Before Alvin and Norbert can reach Dr. Poynter, though, they get swept up in some craziness. They wind up in the middle of two unrelated protests that get gassed by the government and everyone dies. Apparently the protests were fomented by that same government, who wanted to test the gas. Alvin and Norbert survive, although they wake up covered in corpses. They soon meet Cheryl, who turns out to be the woman that Alvin hallucinated at the beginning of the book.
Cheryl is a Samaritan. She’s employed by a government agency to help people commit suicide. The population is so high that the government encourages suicide. It also turns out that the mass-murder of protesters also had something to do with lowering the population, although this is dropped from the plot almost immediately.
Alvin falls in love with Cheryl immediately―earlier than that, actually, because he already saw her in a vision―and she just considers him sweet and naïve, like everyone else. His clumsy advances are gently rebuffed, and while she thinks that she should just get rid of him, she never manages to do so.
Norbert, in the meantime, gets split from the rest of the party and meets Dr. Poynter and they have their own adventures.
Dr. Poynter, incidentally, is a lesbian. This is never treated as anything other than matter-of-fact, and so for a while I thought the book might actually be progressive in this sense. Given the rest of it, though, I’m not so sure anymore. It could be that the acceptance of Dr. Poynter’s lifestyle is yet another part of the satire, in which case, yikes.
Alvin and Cheryl get captured by some revolutionaries, and some more gross stuff happens.
See, the revolutionaries are intelligent apes. They’re ones that have decided that they no longer wish to be slaves to humanity and have struck out on their own. They dislike humans, calling them “pinkies,” and refer to one another as “monkey,” which in any other context would be a racist slur. There are plenty of humans who don’t like anthropoids, as they’re called, and are convinced that they’re, well, taking our jobs. You know, the jobs that humans wouldn’t do in the first place. I think you know where this is going.
The apes are a placeholder for either blacks in particular or immigrants in general. Good apes, like Norbert, are treated sympathetically, while the revolutionaries are mostly played for laughs. I’m not sure what this whole thing is supposed to accomplish in terms of the satire, but recasting a minority group as apes is highly insensitive. At best.
These revolutionary apes are communists. They refer to themselves as the prolitariape, which is actually pretty great, but everything else is gross. It’s a group of these apes that rape Cheryl, who takes it in stride, and it turns out that their leader is just a cynical politician-ape who is using the banner of the revolution as a bid for power and money. After learning that Cheryl is the daughter of a wealthy MP, he contacts said father and the two of them set up an agreement where they will both make a lot of money from the press coverage of the kidnapping.
What does all of this have to do with clones, I hear you asking? Well, it turns out that the answer is not much. I was starting to get frustrated by this point, as opposed to just disgusted.
It actually pains me to say both of those things. The Road to Corlay was so good, and some of that genius does manage to shine through in this book. Cowper is a great writer. He can turn an amazing phrase, and, astonishingly, all the protagonists in this book are quite likable. The prose and dialogue were very good. I liked reading this book on a mechanical level, even if the content was unforgivable.
After all these wacky adventures, Norbert and Dr. Poynter are able to join up with Alvin and Cheryl. Dr. Poynter reveals the history of Alvin and his brothers, and they all set off to find those brothers. Alvin has, by this point, recovered his memories and has something mysterious in mind.
The first brother, Bruce, is working in a monastery in Ireland. In one of the more relatable bits of the satire, the monastery has given itself over to commercial interests and has converted the monks’ cells into luxury rooms for tourists who want to get the “real monastery experience.” I liked that.
Colin is working in a fish-packing plant in Holland, and Desmond works at a solar power plant in the Sahara. As the pages of this book dwindled down, I was relieved to see this element of the plot finally get some resolution.
And then I was disappointed.
The four brothers finally meet up, the other three recover their memories, and they begin to do…something. Hanging out at an ancient temple in Libya, they just sit there and, like, meditate or something. Sensing that something is going on, the world’s leaders threaten them with destruction if they don’t stop what they’re doing, but Alvin and Co., state that any attempts to act on those threats will be met with the destruction of most of the population of the Earth.
You’d think that the book would have kept up with an earlier part of the satire and had the world leaders say that they actually like this idea, but alas, no. They back down.
The Brothers Four then teleport themselves and the other protagonists to a paradise world. Alvin and Norbert have a brief conversation about how humanity is pretty terrible but that, even with all his power, Alvin couldn’t do anything about it, so they might as well all hang out here and have a good time.
Yeah, it’s a pretty bad ending with no resolution, but at the same time, I don’t think there was much to resolve? This book didn’t have much substance to it, even for a satire. I’m not sure if I’d even call it a satire. It didn’t satirize much in particular, that’s for sure. It was just kind of like “Hey, everything’s pretty whack, isn’t it?”
It’s odd to me that this book was as successful in America as it was. For one, it’s very English. I feel like part of my lack of understanding might have something to do with that fact. Yeah, I know a fair amount about England. I got my degree in English Lit. But as much as I’ve studied that culture and enjoyed Terry Pratchett and Blackadder and Red Dwarf and, hey, while I’m at it, I just want to call out the BBC for not giving me a single way to watch That Mitchell and Webb Look. What the hell, Beeb? I would give you money, but you won’t let me.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that while it’s a culture that I appreciate, it’s one that I appreciate from outside. To make it even more challenging, this book deals with English culture in 1972, from which I am even more separated.
Despite the problems with the book, Richard Cowper can still write. Gods as my witnesses, I enjoyed reading this book, even while I was disgusted by it. It wasn’t that I enjoyed it in some ironic way like lots of the books I read, taking pleasure in clumsy phrases and typos (this edition did have a lot of typos, though, while I’m at it). Despite being ostensibly satire, the book didn’t come across as cynical, either. It wasn’t what I’d call optimistic, but it didn’t get bogged down in how terrible and awful people are, which is pretty welcome right now. Justifiable though it may be, I get enough of that from Twitter.
I don’t know if I should recommend you read this book or avoid it. I’ll choose option three and tell you to read The Road to Corlay.
3 thoughts on “Clone”
From the description here, it sounds like it should be read in a context that crosses things like Harrison’s “Make Room, Make Room” and Lem’s “Futurological Congress”.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It’s tough when a favorite author writes a stinker. For me, it was Farnham’s Freehold.
I also choose option three.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I might have run into something similar to this, in another genre. The early Lawrence Block book “Borderline” was one of those lurid crime novels of the 1950’s, only it seems to have been published in the early 1960’s. There were a couple of satirical points about the silence around sexual assault crimes in the newspapers, making a point like: “these things happen and the only way they get described is in trash like this story.” It might be considered something that good writers did when they wrote bad stories for money. I saw the point but I couldn’t recommend it.
LikeLiked by 1 person