The Question of Conditioning in “The Echo Wife” – Chicago Review of Books


Centuries of religious and philosophical debate have centered on the question of whether we have free will or not, with modern neuroscience and psychology framed around the conflict between nurturing influences and natural biological predisposition. The debate sits at the center of Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, a fast-paced, page-turning science fiction thriller delving into a deeper discourse about the very essence of our individuality. 

Like a modern retelling of Frankenstein set in a near-future not so different from our own time, The Echo Wife explores the conflict between predestination and individual choice. Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a renowned researcher growing human clones at a for-profit lab. Her clones are tools, most often used for such utilitarian purposes as organ harvesting. The clones have no rights, and are considered property. Although Gailey touches on these issues, the novel avoids a deep dive into the morality and ethics of growing clones. The focus is grounded in a more fundamental question centered on individualism. Gailey presents personhood as tied to an intrinsic uniqueness, an innate quality. Although Gailey also raises the question of people as property, this concern is mostly limited to an examination of self-determination rather than a harder look at oppression. 

Evelyn has recently divorced Nathan, a middling academic researcher intimidated by Evelyn’s success. He wanted a wife and mother to his children rather than an equal partner. He creates what he wants in Martine, a woman he has cloned from Evelyn’s genetic material by stealing her research. Martine calls Evelyn wanting to talk. The women meet for tea, revealing Martine’s origins and pregnancy to Evelyn. When Nathan becomes violent and Martine kills him, the two women conspire to replace Nathan with a clone. Interwoven through the narrative are flashbacks to Evelyn’s childhood with her abusive father. Evelyn’s father provided her an opportunity each night to ask him any questions she had as a way of fostering her intellect. The answers he provided mimics the programming Evelyn endeavors to achieve with her clones, a parallel linking her journey with Martine’s. 

The clones are a genetic copy, but not perfect replications of the people that are cloned. Martine and Evelyn are identical from a genetic standpoint but very different in personality. Evelyn’s skill as a clone researcher stems from imitating the lived experience of the source subject in the genetic copies. The neurocognitive programming of clones involves chemically altering their brains as well as physical changes, like breaking a bone as a catalyst to create an emotional response. At stake is the issue of how events in our lives shape who we are. In creating Martine, Nathan has not conditioned her in the same way Evelyn was conditioned by childhood, by her father, by life. Martine never experienced a childhood nor was she abused by her father. She is merely conditioned by Nathan to imitate experiences.

The conditioning process can also alter the personality of a clone. In creating Martine, Nathan intentionally designed her to be more docile than Evelyn. The threat of patriarchal control lingers through the novel. Both Evelyn’s father and Nathan abuse their positions of power, and Martine and Evelyn both must fight against it, in essence rejecting their programming. When the women replicate Nathan, Evelyn decides she will improve on the original by removing his violent tendencies. Yet despite Evelyn’s past successes, Martine worries Nathan will break out of his conditioning and murder her. 

This idea of conditioning extends to Evelyn, even though she is not a clone. Her father was a harsh, abusive figure in her life. This trauma has conditioned her in a similar way to how she programs the clones. The question then is how much free will does anyone actually have? Martine knows she has been manipulated to be more docile and with an innate desire to have a baby. Evelyn too has been conditioned by her father, and must grapple with the realization he helped make her who she is. Neither woman wants to be a product of someone else’s programming, but they also know breaking their conditioning means their attempts to eliminate Nathan’s violence might fail as well. Ultimately, these are characters who fight against predetermination, and Gailey seems to clearly come down on the side of nature over nurture—the uniqueness of an individual cannot be suppressed. 

Beyond these larger questions, the novel is an entertaining read. The chapters are short and fast, and Gailey ends most with a twist, cliff hanger, or new mystery, and there is a constant desire to read just one more. Gailey’s skill is in creating succinct scenes leaving us needing more, forcing the reader to move to the next. Curiosity drives the narrative. The narrative is also strong at keeping us present in the moment. Partly this is because Evelyn serves as a narrator. The first person point of view keeps the action urgent. However, it also means Evelyn manipulates the narrative. She doles out information slowly—we suspect Evelyn was abused as a child, but it’s only confirmed further on in the book. Evelyn also at times wants readers to see her as a victim—Nathan is portrayed as a thief who stole her work, and even Martine, who is only a bystander, threatens Evelyn’s career by her very existence. Yet, Evelyn also brags about her power and ruthlessness, how she can “crush” the “rising panic” of people, like a “dozen rejected lab assistants” she has dismissed. She is aggressive, with Nathan saying she was “like a hornet.” She doesn’t tell us this because she’s ashamed, but because she is proud to be someone with this kind of control. It is the rejection of her father’s patriarchal programming. Evelyn sees the Nathan clone as her “greatest accomplishment.” Despite Martine’s desire to kill the Nathan clone, Evelyn refuses to terminate the project out of hubris. Like Victor Frankenstein, Evelyn has created a ‘monster’ who rejects his creator’s desires and intentions. 

Sarah Gailey has given us a compelling blockbuster with cerebral complexity. The questions Gailey grapples with are the very essence of what it means to be human, whether we possess self-determination or whether we are fated toward outcomes beyond our control. An intense, engaging novel, The Echo Wife succeeds at both good storytelling and launching into a broader discourse. 

FICTION
The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books
Published February 16, 2021

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen’s fiction has appeared in The Offing, 45th Parallel, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland, and elsewhere and nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, trampset, The Negatives, Electric Literature, and Fiction Advocate. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.





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