Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Beta by Rachel Cohn

Elysia is a human clone but very different from the animal clones we are familiar with, which are grown from a few cells into a fully developed organism that is identical genetically to its parent. Her body is not grown from a few cells which pass through the stages of human development but instead is an exact physical replicate of a person who died - her First. Because her body is a duplicate made in a machine, Elysia is told she cannot feel emotions and has no soul. Elysia is unique as a clone because she begins life as a 16 year old teen. Clones are made of adults and the process hasn't yet been perfected for teens, so Elysia is known as a Beta clone.

To make up for the lack of a soul, all clones have two individualized chip implants. The first implant is placed in the brain to supply working knowledge and information on how to respond emotionally to humans. The second chip is placed in the wrist and functions as a locator so clones cannot get lost.  All clones have violet eyes and a violet fleur des lis tatooed on the right side of their face. Clones can be purchased and once they are purchased they get a second tattoo on the left side of their face which tells what their function is.

Elysia was manufactured by Dr. Larissa Lusardi, the world expert in cloning. Lusardi's laboratory is located on one side of an island in the lush archipelago named Demesne. This island was developed into a paradise for elite citizens. The air is specially treated with high concentrations of oxygen and everything on the island is created to perfection. Demesne's inhabitants require clones to serve them as butlers, maids, cooks and companions. The newly emergent Elysia is bought by the wife of Demesne's governor, Mrs. Bratton as a companion. Bratton's eldest daughter, Astrid, has left home to study at university on the Mainland and she wants someone to replace her daughter.

Elysia is taken to the Governor's villa where she meets two of his children; 18 year old Ivan and 10 year Liesel. In addition to being a companion for Mrs. Bratton, Elysia is also to train Ivan for his placement in military academy. She is an expert diver, excellent swimmer and in good physical shape. The implication here is that her First was probably an outstanding athlete.

Although Elysia knows she is not supposed to be able to feel or taste, she immediately begins to realize that in fact she can feel emotions and she can taste food. She loves macaroni and cheese, as well as chocolate. And she has strange memories of a man whom she feels attracted to - which she believes are the memories of her First. She gradually comes to understand that her first "Z" loved this unknown man.

When Elysia meets Tahir Fortesquieu, Ivan's best friend who had a serious surfing accent a year ago, there is a certain inexplicable chemistry between them. Elysia learns that Ivan's older sister, Astrid, loved Tahir, but the pre-accident Tahir, was a "player". Post-accident Tahir, seems strangely different to his friends. He is no longer interested in partying, drinking or doing drugs and he seems very quiet and polite.

While all this is going on, we learn that a man from the military who is an Aquine, has been sent to investigate why some of the clones on the island are "waking up". The clones who wake up or experience emotions are called Defects and they are immediately returned and expired. The Aquine is to prepare are report to the Replicant Rights Commission on what is happening on Demesne.

As time passes Elysia comes to realize that there are other clones like her - who feel. When she catches Xanthe, another clone making love to a male clone, they later meet and Elysia learns more about the Defects. Elysia learns that she is not the only teen clone and that some teen clones go through an "awakening" and turn Awful - they become uncontrollable and rage against humans. She is warned by Xanthe not to let anyone suspect that she feels or has memories. And Xanthe tells her not to get involved with Tahir - that a human cannot love a clone and that she will be nothing more than a consort.

Tahir's parents are so impressed with Elysia that they ask the Brattons if they can borrow her for a week. For Elysia, this couldn't come a moment too soon as the governor has indicated that he expects her to become his consort in exchange for her not being tested to ensure she is not a Defect. Elysia is suddenly becoming aware of how she can be used against her will.

**spoilers from this point on**

During the week with the Fortesquieu's, Elysia comes to the astonishing conclusion that Tahir is also a clone. The first Tahir died in the surfing accident. His parents had him cloned to continue Tahir's life. When Tahir's parents learn that Elysia can feel they decide that they will purchase her from the Brattons to help their son. Not surprisingly, the two clones fall in love and decide that they wish to determine the direction of their own lives. This means that they must somehow find a way to escape from Demesne.

However, before they can do this, fate intervenes. Elysia who has no returned home to the Bratton's house is put on display at the Governor's Ball, which the Brattons have been preparing for. It is at this time that she meets the Aquine, Alexander Blackburn who turns out to be her First's lover. She learns from Alexander that her First's name was Zhara and how she died. As an Aquine, Alexander belongs to a master race of humans who mate for life. Since Zhara was his mate, he finds he is very attracted to Elysia.

The situation at the Governor's Ball turns ugly when Tahir turns "awful", getting into a fight. Tahir is outed as a clone and as a result the Fortesquieu's vanish and with him Elysia's chance to escape the island. Elysia then makes of tragic mistake of telling Ivan that she and Tahir are mates. Furious and in a fit of jealousy, Ivan rapes Elysia. When he tries to do this again the next night, she stabs him in self defense and flees the island by jumping into the sea. Elysia is rescued by Alexander and nursed back to health by Defect on an isolated island. When Elysia and Alexander are out one afternoon swimming they make an astonishing, but heart rending discovery that concludes the first book.

Beta is one of the more interesting dystopian young adult novels. The writing is excellent, (Cohn is an established young adult writer) with the author focusing on portraying the evolution of the teen clone Elysia as she searches to understand who and what she is, especially since her experience of who and what she is differs from what she has been told. She shouldn't feel or taste - but she does. She shouldn't have memories from the person she was cloned from - but she does. She should want to serve - but she wants to be free to make her own choices. This dissonance creates a source of conflict in her that she struggles to hide because it could mean her torture and destruction. At the same time these feelings and experiences create pleasure and pain.

Written from Elysia's point of view, her voice is authentic from beginning to end. Her innocent, demure voice is appealing, drawing the reader into learning more about this unique character and trying to understand what she is. It wasn't apparent to me that Elysia as a clone was different from the clones we know. Elysia's voice changes as she struggles to understand her place in the utopian society of Demesne and deal with what appear to be memories of the person she was cloned from. Elysia gradually "awakens" to an understanding that although she may be a physical copy of another person, she might actually have the ability and the right to forge a separate path. She is led to this position by her interaction with other clones such as Xanthe and Tahir, although she probably would have reached this conclusion on her own eventually.

Beta also deals with the use of human clones as essentially slaves. Demesne society has attempted to bypass the ethical questions by first murdering the real Dr. Lusardi and creating a clone who would continue her work without any qualms about how the clones are used. But it appears that Demesne is the only society on Earth that allows the use of clones and there are brief references to the fact that this is not acceptable. There is a growing movement from outside of Demesne to stop the cloning.

Cohn doesn't spend much time developing the dystopian world as a whole, focusing more on the luxury island paradise of Demesne. This works for the most part because the story is set on the island and most of the main characters have never been off the island which rather conveniently is impossible to travel to. There are references to other parts of the world such as Biome City in a desert but these are never really developed.

One drawback to the book is the focus on physical beauty; everyone in the book is physically perfect. The teen boys are well muscled and buff, Elysia is stunningly beautiful as is Tawny (the Governor's masseuse) and Xanthe. Alexander is also a perfect physical specimen because he is part of a master race of humans, the Aquines who breed only within their race and mate for life.

There is some sexual content in the book; the rape scene is not graphically described. The violence is graphic and scattered throughout the book.

There is also a strong prolife message in the novel. When Elysia is told she is pregnant she doesn't want to keep the life growing within her. But she barely understands what is happening to her, nor how she can care for this new being. When she asks the Defect who has helped heal her to get rid of her baby she is told that she is in no condition to make any decision right now. She tells Elysia that she is a sign of hope for the clones because it was believed they could not conceive children. While this message might offend some, it is not only a good message, but will add an interesting dimension to further development of the storyline in the next book.

Overall, I found Beta to be a good start to what is likely to be an interesting science fiction series. The short trailer can be found below:

Book Details:
Beta by Rachel Cohn
New York: Hyperion 2012
331 pp.

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