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Book cover art by Christian McGrath.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Steven L. Kent is an author who has come to SF by way of the video game industry, and, not surprisingly, his debut novel has something of a military motif. Happily, The Clone Republic isn't anything as simplistic as a Halo-ish fragfest on paper, but a character-driven epic that understands that the best war stories are really anti-war stories.

There are a number of elements in this novel that could be interpreted as commentary on current events. Certainly Kent's view of politics is appropriately jaundiced. In the story's future — the early 26th century — the idea of military grunts as expendable cannon fodder has been taken to its cynical peak. Clone warriors are mass produced for military service at such volume that top brass think nothing of sending tens of thousands of them to get slaughtered to secure even the most minor victories. The governing body of the Earth is the Unified Authority, evolved from the former United States. As an observation on current imperialist trends in American government, it couldn't be more trenchant. The UA government is a flat-out plutocracy that controls thousands of colonies scattered around the Milky Way with an iron fist, allowing freedoms to a certain extent, but coming down with crushing force against any colony with ambitions towards independence. The irony is that what the US has become has brought it full circle, placing it on the opposite side of exactly the same kind of revolutionary battle that led to its founding.

Wayson Harris was raised in a clone orphanage. He believes himself to be natural born, but this is a piece of conditioning all clones possess. Clones have been programmed with a fairly extreme version of "Plato's Lie," a concept originated by the philosopher in his Republic; Plato posited that one way to keep the rabble under control would be to inform them, if they ever got too big for their britches, that their entire lives were a construct created by their government (sort of like the fake memories installed in replicants in Blade Runner). I'm not sure how Plato thought this would work in a real life situation, but in Kent's novel, a clone who realizes he's a clone dies. This might seem like a wildly implausible plot element, only Kent does make it work. For one thing, these are engineered people, after all; Kent's idea is simply a variant on Blade Runner's four-year-lifespan. Kent introduces the darkly ironic touch of having many of his clone soldiers fiercely bigoted against clones.

Harris begins his tour of duty as a Marine on an out-of-the-way planet where he gets his first experience of open rebellion. A renegade general named Crowley has fallen in with a resistance movement called the Mogat Separatists, and the out-of-condition Marine platoon only manages to fight off a surprise attack by Crowley (who's after their arsenal) with the help of a mercenary named Freeman. Harris is promoted to corporal and transferred, where he learns that the Mogats are more organized than previously thought. If not technologically up-to-date, they have numbers and passionate conviction on their side. They also have ships, remnants of a Central Galactic fleet previously thought lost.

I enjoyed both the intricate plotting, and the way Kent always kept the reader focused on Harris throughout. The story has a number of secrets that are revealed with great deliberation and care, but Kent never loses his grip or allows the whole affair to plunge into confusion. What's less laudible is the often meandering narrative, which has a number of sequences going on far longer than necessary (particularly a furlough scene set in Hawaii halfway through) and doesn't really decide which of several antagonists to settle on until the climax. There are also a handful of minor plausibility issues I found to nitpick. (Why are Marines issued pistols that are easily sabotaged simply by holding the barrel a certain way?) And Kent can't avoid dredging up the occasional cliché; Harris has not one but two mentor figures, both of whom die. Finally, Kent feels no reason whatsoever to be discreet about his sequel setup. The book might as well have ended with a "To Be Continued" tag.

But overall, I was satisfied and eager to press on to the next chapter of Harris's journey. The Clone Republic might favor internal conflict over external, angst over explosions. Yet it makes for a smartly conceived adventure that reminds us that, if we ever do make human cloning a reality, they will be no less human than the rest of us.

Followed by Rogue Clone.