Set in 2022, this impressive first novel by nonfiction author Hoffman (Shtetl, 1997, etc.) sketches a creepily plausible near-future in which her protagonist experiences a very 21st-century identity crisis.
The title is deliberately misleading. The real, “all-too-human secret” will not be fully understood until the story’s fnal pages. Hoffman expertly inserts enough clues for readers to guess the putative secret regarding narrator Iris Surrey’s birth shortly before she does it on page 60: Iris isn’t just Elizabeth Surrey’s daughter, but her mother’s clone. Finally understanding the reason for “The Weirdness,” the preternatural closeness that always set them apart in the midwestern college town where her mother raised her, Iris flees to Elizabeth’s native New York City, whose actual streets are subtly different from the Virtuals she viewed in school: “there were elements of surprise in the actual.” The grandparents she’s never met have moved from the Park Avenue address she found on old letters, so she takes up with Piotr, who can help her break into a classified e-mail address to locate them. Meanwhile, she watches organic artists reshaping actual animals using computer implants; visits a virtual club, where people use memory-chips to give themselves invented identities for a few hours; attends a debate on “Whither Human Design?”; and tries Piotr’s Affect Simulator, which allows users to acquire specific emotions at particular intensities. Hoffman gradually and subtly makes the point that although Iris may feel especially unreal due to her origins (her birth in 2005 was one of the first human clonings), she lives in a world where “reality” is virtual as often as physical. Yet the cautiously optimistic ending suggests that authentic identity and experiences are still attainable.
As can happen in philosophically inclined science fiction, the issues are more fully explored than the characters; but when those issues include the nature of reality and the location of the human soul, it’s not such a drawback.