This week, I’m reviewing The Sentient, by Nadia Afifi. Cloning, conspiracies and consciousness certainly gave me plenty of food for thought with this one. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Flame Tree Press.
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Amira Valdez is a brilliant neuroscientist trying to put her past on a religious compound behind her. But when she’s assigned to a controversial cloning project, her dreams of working in space are placed in jeopardy. Using her talents as a reader of memories, Amira uncovers a conspiracy to stop the creation of the first human clone – at all costs. As she unravels the mystery, Amira navigates a dangerous world populated by anti-cloning militants, scientists with hidden agendas, and a mysterious New Age movement. In the process, Amira uncovers an even darker secret, one that forces her to confront her own past.
My first thought upon reading the blurb for this book was that there was a lot going on here. It seemed to me that there were a number of seemingly disparate elements in this mix which might be difficult to successfully wrangle into a cohesive whole. Having finished it, was this fear unfounded?
Not wholly, no, but that isn’t to say there isn’t still plenty to enjoy here.
Considering how much plot there is to this story, the first two thirds are surprisingly sedate. It wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s plodding, as there are a number of interesting ideas here. But there is also a lot of backstory and exposition, particularly at the start. It’s something of a barrage of information in fact, not all of which seems all that relevant or interesting. Details such as the staff wearing different coloured lab coats according to their level of seniority or what the colours of different train lines are seem fussily overexplained, almost as if they’re intended to make up for world building deficiencies or inconsistencies in other areas. The prose itself is fine, so these extra, somewhat artless touches can get a little frustrating, slowing things down and providing far too much to think about in conjunction with the harder science fiction elements. It feels a lot like padding, and there are certainly a few chapters which could be a little leaner.
Once the info dumps are (mainly) out of the way, it’s clear that Afifi has some bold concepts to investigate. Theories and meditations on consciousness abound, which did make me stop and think about the implications of what was being discussed a couple of times. The questions posed by some of the later revelations were especially interesting. The ethics of cloning aren’t really picked over in any great detail, which feels like a missed opportunity; indeed, much of the treatment of prospective clone mother Rozene actually seems quite unethical. Whilst there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this from a story perspective, it seems jarring when Amira – who is so often critical of the way the (bizarrely named) Pandora project have treated Rozene – is just as guilty of exploiting or manipulating her. Particular actions and decisions sometimes make it difficult to empathise with Amira as a main character, actions which seem at odds with the kind of respectful person she’s been shown to be previously.
This next point might sound like a bizarre criticism from someone who promotes and reviews mainly science fiction, but at times it seemed like this would have worked better if it wasn’t so futuristic. The central story around cloning could fairly easily have been set just ten or twenty years into the future rather than two hundred, given that it’s already theoretically possible to clone a human being, and in fact some of the other advanced technology in the novel feels like it causes more narrative problems than it solves. Some of it seems to exist solely to facilitate a particular plot point or scene too, which occasionally feels like a somewhat fast and loose approach to plotting.
In spite of the various issues I’ve outlined, I did still enjoy The Sentient, particularly when the pace picked up considerably (and suddenly) in the final third. I do wish it could have got going a little quicker than it did; much of the action later on is entertaining, if still slightly weighed down by a strangely slavish adherence to making everything about thirty percent more “science fictiony” than it really needs to be. It never feels like it drags though, even in those earlier chapters. Representing something of a grab bag of science fiction ideas but with some interesting and original ones underpinning it, The Sentient shows promise, and I’m interested to see what Nadia Afifi comes up with in the future.
The Sentient was released on the 8th of September, published by Flame Tree Press, and is available through this affiliate link.