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Davidson's Heredity



Davidson, Jenny. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2003. 231p., $15.00, softcover. ISBN: 1887128794.

Cloning a new human is not possible with current technology; a human clone requires a human uterus in which to grow, and the infant clone will be genetically as old as the genetic parent. Isaac Asimov coined the phrase "Frankenstein Complex," referring to public fear of new scary technology that threatens to change the human race; Asimov was referring to humanoid robots, but cloning seems to be a better fit with Shelley's Frankenstein, in that it is reproduction that requires only one parent. This is a science-fiction use of the technology, but stem-cell cloning has the potential for massive change in the social fabric of humanity, by vastly extending life-spans via organ replacement. The main change here is likely to be a further schism in economic class distinctions, since cloning is and will continue to be hideously complicated and expensive.

Jenny Davidson's novel Heredity is not about cloning.

Heredity does use cloning as a plot device, but if there's a big meaning encoded it seems to be something like "big technology can be used as a vector for self-destructive behavior." I mention what Davidson's novel is NOT about for two reasons: I was fooled by the press releases, and it leads to my biggest complaint with this novel -- it suffers mainly in comparison with what it could be. Instead of social commentary about cloning, the technology is just a plot device (an effective one, however). The two eponymous characters -- the heroine, and the woman from the nineteenth century whose interwoven story the modern Elizabeth researches -- are not connected enough in either dialog or actions to shine light on the character(s), but the story interweaving is done well. The self-destructive tendencies of Elizabeth are well described, and her psychological history isn't too pop-psych; but the depths of her psyche are merely interesting, and who the character is as presented by what she does and says in the novel are at odds with what we're told about her (the novel ends with her acceptance into Columbia's medical school, for instance). The sex scenes, both nicely raunchy and well-executed in and of themselves, seem slightly forced, as if the novelist was working from a checklist with "naughty sex" as one of the items.

I wouldn't say I was expecting social commentary on cloning from a work of modern fiction, but (especially from the book's press) I had hoped for at least a mention of some of the social ramifications of a new, big, scary technology. It's omission was not the book's only flaw, though; at several points in the dialog (which was generally fresh and tight) the characters break the flow to give a mini-lecture about cloning. I'm not saying it's easy to include science facts in a work of fiction; I'm just saying Heredity doesn't do it well. The characters are for the most part unfortunately named; the main character is Elizabeth Mann, her lover is Gideon Streetcar, and that seems a little much, especially for a post-modernist like myself. Overall, I think one more editing pass by Ms. Davidson would have greatly improved this book -- tightened up several scenes, hinted at things that it says too baldly, gone in depth into sections that seem poorly fleshed out.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, however; while Heredity is flawed, it certainly is a decent and readable book. The journal entries by past-Elizabeth are well-written and fit into the flow of the story very well; as do the minor characters (Gideon's mother, Robert from Canada). The main characters are believable and internally consistent, and the cloning parts work well, as far as they go. Heredity is certainly a good rainy-afternoon read, if one doesn't go into it with the kind of expectations that press-releases create. Though flawed -- mostly in comparison to what it could be -- it kept my interest throughout, and I want to buy more copies to give to my friends for a coffee-shop-afternoon discussion. If this book were a movie it wouldn't be Blade Runner, or even Terminator; but it approaches Star Wars, and that's generally good enough. At fourteen dollars, Jenny Davidson's Heredity gives about as much pleasure as a decent bottle of wine, which is in a certain sense the bottom line.

David C Froemke