The fantasist author of the hilarious The Shambling Guide to New York City (2013) ventures into science-fiction horror.
The immediate setup will be familiar to mystery fans: five dead bodies, variously stabbed, poisoned, or hanged, and no survivors. Whodunit? We’re in the 25th century, however, on a sub–light speed starship whose controlling artificial intelligence, IAN, is offline. The six—gofer Maria Arena, Capt. Katrina de la Cruz, navigator/pilot Akihiro Sato, security chief Wolfgang, engineer Paul Seurat, and Dr. Joanna Glass—wake in new, cloned bodies, covered in slime, surrounded by vats, tubes, gore, and the horror of their own slaughtered corpses, with no idea of what’s been happening since the voyage began. They do recall earlier lifetimes, but evidently they were all criminals, so nobody can afford to reveal anything or trust anybody else. And with both the clone-growth and memory-backup processes sabotaged, the bodies they now occupy are their last. Maybe this is all just too devious for its own good. In any event, the narrative never quite lives up to that remarkable opening. Momentum dissipates amid frequent pauses to belabor the cloning process and laws relating to clone succession, not to mention a succession of scientific howlers (for instance, the ship depends for power on a solar sail—but there’s no “solar” in interstellar space). Still, as the characters delve separately and together into their previous lives in search of an explanation for their predicament, the tension rises, personalities are revealed, and common factors emerge—some of them, we learn, are retired, recovering, or repurposed homicidal maniacs.
You have to wonder why, given Lafferty’s manifest talent for humor, she didn’t simply play it for laughs. Still, readers easily captivated and not overly concerned with structural dependability will find much to entertain them.