The Original is an audio-first story from Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal. I received a review copy through NetGalley. I’ve read some of Sanderson’s previous work but it was my first exposure to Kowal. The Original is a near future sci-fi story where humans have developed cloning technology. If they can afford, people can pay to have a clone set up for if they die. Weekly appointments to back up all memories assure that the clone will be able to mostly pick up right where the authentic article left off. The Original focuses on a woman named Holly whose life is turned upside down when she awakens as what’s known as a replica. This special kind of clone is created only when the original human has broken the law and is on the run, with the express purpose of hunting down those they were created from.
Cloning in science fiction is a trope nearly as old as the genre itself. What I appreciated about The Original is that it didn’t fall into the same trap most plots based on cloning do. Rather than treat the cloning revelation as a big plot twist, the authors build a world where it’s well understood that clones are real and what their function in society is. Clones know that they’re clones and other people know when someone is now a clone and not their original body. This lets the authors explore the relationship that the replica Holly has with her original self. The actions that have led to replica Holly’s creation seem wildly out of character to herself and the tension built in our main character’s investigation and slow understanding of what happened to fill in the gaps in her memory was effectively pulled off. It didn’t feel like the same-old stale cloning story that’s been done one hundred times before.
The Original also touches on other near future technology that one can imagine actually existing. The book reads a bit like an episode of the Black Mirror in it’s ability to portray technological advancements in a more sinister light. In addition to cloning, one of the prominent themes of the book is the damage that virtual and augmented reality may have on human society. It’s not hard to imagine the world that’s been built by Sanderson and Kowal as one of the likely directions society would head with more integration with reality warping technology.
This is a short audiobook. It clocks in at about three and a half hours. I actually like the model of putting out novellas and short audio originals in-between longer books for science fiction authors. Martha Wells, John Scalzi, and now Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal have made good use of the format. There’s plenty of room to tell a complete and satisfying story without turning the book into a full-blown sci-fi epic. The Original was a good example of that short-story focused storytelling. The production is top-notch. There’s a soundtrack but it’s never over-done. Julia Whelan is the narrator and she’s one of the best in the audiobook narration game.
I enjoyed The Original’s take on technology, its bite size manner, and the high-quality production of the audiobook. The ending is satisfying, but leaves just enough wiggle room that I can imagine there being another entry. If that’s the case, I’d look forward to reading it. I hope in the future that authors will be as willing as Sanderson and Kowal to try this different publication model.