”I’m a clone, I know it and I’m fine.”
– Alice Cooper
The year is 2071. The United States is considered to be a rogue country, as it is the only place in the world where the practice of cloning is legal and government-sponsored. Clones live in a section of the Midwest called The Clearances, and live for the sole purpose of having their internal organs harvested in the event that their original needs an eye, a liver, a heart or a lung during the course of his or her lifetime. During the two decades that cloning has been in inception, nobody has met a clone, and no clone has escaped from The Clearances. That is, until now.
That’s essentially the premise behind Steven Polansky’s dense, plot-heavy debut novel The Bradbury Report, which yes, is a reference to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. (The connection is a bit unclear considering Bradbury, as far as I can tell, never wrote a book about cloning.) The protagonist of the tale – a 60-something former high-school math teacher living in New Hampshire – takes the pseudonym to write a report, this book, about the moral dilemma behind cloning. As it turns out, Ray’s copy somehow – and the book never really embellishes the details – escapes from The Clearances, and finds his way into the company of the protagonist’s ex-flame from 40 years ago, who immediately recognizes the clone as a younger version of the protagonist. After tracking down our “Ray Bradbury”, the woman, who is involved with an anti-cloning protest group, convinces him to take the clone on the run into Canada with her for the purposes of writing the aforementioned report that will turn US public opinion against cloning.
If that sounds like a convoluted and convenient plot that almost sounds too tidy to really work, you would be right. The Bradbury Report requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief in order to accept its main conceit, but alas, that’s not the book’s only deficiency. For starters, the topic of cloning in popular fiction isn’t exactly a new one: the high-water mark is 2005’s Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which also deals with the issue of using clones to provide organs for ordinary people. For a book that its publisher is touting as the next 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale — essentially the next timeless mainstream science-fiction classic – The Bradbury Report already feels about a decade behind the times. (For one, the last time the mainstream media took hold of the concept of cloning was when the Raëlians claimed they had cloned a human baby girl in 2002.)
There are a few things that the book does do right, notably with its characterizations. Alan, the clone, is memorable, even though we don’t get to really meet him until the last half of the novel. He is initially presented as being little more than an infant who, despite the fact that he is 21-years-old, can’t even control his bowels at first. However, the character grows over time into something that resembles a curious teenager, and it is his sense of longing – his wish to be his own self and his desire to have sex with a woman to become a complete human being – that propels the story. That longing is echoed through “Ray Bradbury” who, if Alan is longing for the present, pines for the past: a live where his wife is still alive and his son didn’t die in childbirth. The novel is poignant and a little bit heartbreaking, however, as Alan becomes something of the son (and eventually more than just that) “Ray” never had.
The Bradbury Report scores some additional points, as an American book, for being set in Canada in its back half. Granted, much of the action is set within the confines of apartments (as our protagonists and the clone hide out from the authorities), so there’s not a lot of time for sightseeing. However, I was amused to read a book partially set in the government town that is my Ottawa – a place not only overlooked by American authors, but a place that some literary agents warn writers not to write about if they want their books to sell. Canadian readers might also be somewhat amused to see the Winnipeg Jets reborn as a hockey franchise when Ray and his clone decide to partake in a game at a rink one winter’s night. As a Canadian, it’s fun to see so many of our cities represented in this work.
However, as a whole, The Bradbury Report is an unsuccessful novel. For one, for all of its futurist trappings, the novel could have been set today, in the here and now, and not lose anything in the translation. In the book, characters watch TV, use computers as word processing programs, and still drive cars and trucks as a means of transportation. There is little discussion of futuristic devices, save for a complex tracking gadget the characters are given to monitor where Alan is in the event that he decides to break free of his apartment confines and go for a walk in the middle of the night. (This is a bit laughable, as in 2010, all the characters would need is a cellphone logged into Foursquare to keep their dibs on Alan, so long as he kept the phone on him. By 2071, I’m sure we’ll have figured out how to be traceable at all times, notwithstanding privacy issues.)
What’s more, The Bradbury Report wants to make a comment about the state of health care in America. The problems with the US health care system that the novel points out, however, seem a bit dated now that the Obama administration has instituted a series of reforms – the most notable being that insurance companies cannot deny claims based on pre-existing medical conditions. At one point in this novel, a minor character who has chosen not to clone himself is denied a life insurance policy for one million dollars, as the insurer claims that his looming death from kidney failure could have been preventable had he been cloned. What’s more, the character is not eligible for a kidney transplant from another human being, simply because, again, he had failed to take the appropriate preventative measures vis-a-vis cloning.
Given the way that the tide is turning in America, and that health care is gradually becoming more inclusive, Polansky’s prognosis of how grim things could turn out in the next 60 years simply feels groundless. America is moving in the opposite direction as to the picture painted by The Bradbury Report, which makes the book seem behind the times.
The science behind cloning in the novel is also a fallible aspect. Polansky never comes out and says exactly how everyone in America could have their own clone and make it workable – instead, he has a character pop up at key points to surmise how things would work within the system. For instance, we are told that there are approximately 250 million clones living in The Clearances – essentially North and South Dakota – and they all potentially live crammed in side-by-side in airplane hanger-like structures 10,000 individuals at a time. We’re also told that male and female clones are possibly somehow kept separate from each other, as are untouched clones and clones who have been harvested for organs so the former don’t get a hankering about their ultimate fate.
Well, if you start to think about the logistics of all of this, it doesn’t hold very much water. How can 250 million people live in such a small area? What would happen to the farmland? How would people – clones and otherwise – be fed? And how could so many people live in a tiny little area without being noticed by the outside world? (These hangers would have to be huge to support millions upon millions of clones, and would have to be seen from either the ground or the air.) And what about the people who were expropriated from their land? Where do they live?
If you start thinking about the science of The Bradbury Report, the book sort of falls apart. It would have been better if Polanksy just left the nuts and bolts of cloning to be an absolute mystery, and move on with just telling the story.
Further holes can be poked in The Bradbury Report: the author has a tendency to tell, not show, and does it mainly through a series of overused flashbacks and flashforwards. (We find out that Alan has been raped in The Clearances, but this is tossed off as an aside in a flashforward sequence!) The ending of the book also feels rushed and forced, and is a bit of a downer. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it just feels that Polansky was trying to make a big, important statement on the futility of cloning, and he does so that just seems to be wrapped up with a neat little bow rather all too quickly without much in the way of character motivation to back it up. All in all, The Bradbury Report is a flawed, problematic read.
It is not the classic the publisher makes it out to be, and it doesn’t even hold a candle to Never Let Me Go. In a way, this book feels like a clone: a copy of something more original that has harvested its ideas from more compelling sources. If you want to read great science fiction, reading the work of the real Ray Bradbury might be a good place to start.