Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Book Review: The Clone Codes

The Clone Codes
by Patricia C. McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack, and John McKissack

I wanted to like this book. I'm always on the lookout for good young adult science fiction, and this looked perfect: a future where clones are created as servants, with safeguards and restrictions genetically built in to make them the perfect slaves. Thirteen-year-old Leanna grows up believing that clones are less than human, until her mother is arrested for being part of the radical Liberty Bell movement that is working to prove that clones are equal and should be free.

This is the kind of thing that science fiction does so well: explore sociological themes in a subtle way that can open us up to thinking about our own society in a new way. However, this book has all the subtlety of a brick wall. From the opening scene, in which Leanna is participating through school in a virtual re-enactment of an Underground Railroad escape led by Harriet Tubman, it's clear that this book is intended to teach, both about history and about the evils of slavery. This is not science fiction; it's a lesson that's not very cleverly disguised as science fiction.

It's not even very well written, which surprised me since the authors (at least, two of the three of them) have won multiple major awards. The writing style is choppy, the story and character development simplistic, and there's an awful lot of "telling" when there should be "showing." There are multiple plot inconsistencies. Minor ones, to be sure, but it was enough to annoy me. I don't understand how such acclaimed authors could have written such a book, but when I look at their bio, apparently their other books have been non-fiction. I guess that there must be a big enough difference between non-fiction writing and fiction writing -- science fiction in particular -- that skill in one area doesn't necessarily translate into skill in the other. I did wonder whether the short sentences and simplistic plot were intended to address those with reading challenges, however the press materials that Scholastic sent don't say that, and I think even kids with reading challenges will spot the too-obvious lessons in this book.

I don't normally post a review when I can't say anything good about a book. I figure that every author pours their heart and soul into a book, and no author deserves to have their work publicly trashed. If I can't find enough good to say about a book, I usually decline to review it, which I guess makes my reviews more recommendations than reviews.

However, there were a couple of things that annoyed me enough about this book to make me want to post this. The first is the apparent assumption that science fiction is easy to write, and any writer can jump on board and write science fiction. I have spent my life reading science fiction and fantasy, starting in elementary school. I took a college lit class on science fiction. I've studied YA fantasy and science fiction pretty intensely over the last several years in my roles as both blogger and publisher focusing on the genre. And I can tell you that there's nothing easy about writing science fiction. It's probably one of the hardest genres to write well. You have to have all the literary skills required to write any fiction, but in addition you have to have believable world-building and credible science. You have to develop characters that may be very different from us, such as non-human species or genetically modified clones, and yet make it possible for the human reader to understand and identify with them. If you include sociological themes, you have to do it in a subtle, thought-provoking way, and not hit the reader over the head. Books like The Clone Codes are just disrespectful to the genre.

The other thing that annoys me is that I feel that this book wouldn't have been published if the authors hadn't been award-winning, well-known authors. If this book had come in the slush pile, an editor wouldn't have gotten past the first page. With the limited number of books being published, that this one was published means that another book, maybe more well-deserving but with an unknown author, was not.

FTC required disclosure: I received a review copy of The Clone Codes from the publisher. The links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.


mr chompchomp said...

Here here! Down with crappy sci-fi! Especially the stuff targeted at kids. They get enough junk. Do I sound like a geezer?

As a not-yet-successful writer, and lover of science fiction, I can tell you I'm the least successful when I try to write in that genre. Not only is the genre, as you point out, complex by definition, it also seems to have an inherent siren-song tempting a writer toward cliche. Truly tough to do well and all too easy to do poorly.

Might I also say, off topic, good job with the final CYBILS judging.

Christina Rodriguez said...

You've made a smart assessment with your review! I often feel the same way about authors who crossover into children's books. Sometimes the results are really bland, like they thought it's "easy" writing, and assumed their celebrity status in other genres would create enough crossover sales. James Patterson and Stephen King come to mind as offenders.

Unknown said...

I think people tend to underestimate kids. I noticed that there were a lot of reviews of this book on Amazon that basically said, this would be a great book for kids but as an adult I was bored. Well, guess what: if you're bored, chances are the kids are, too! Most of them are a lot more sophisticated than some adults give them credit for.

Thanks for your kind words about the Cybils, Mr Chompchomp! Thanks for your great work on the MG SFF panel.

Tasha said...

I applaud you for finishing it! I gave it the 50 pages test and quickly set it aside. I too had high expectations with the big name authors.

I thought that the parallels being drawn between clones and slaves were appropriate but the heavy handed writing destroyed what could have been a delicate intertwining of the subjects that would have been a lot more successful.

Carmen Ferreiro said...

I couldn't agree more with your review. Writing for children is not easier. And writing SF or Fantasy requires both the writing skills and the imagination/knowledge necessary to create a convincing world.
Thank you for a well crafted review.

Ms. Yingling said...

I didn't mind this one, but then I'm not a huge sci fi fan. I did buy it, and it has circulated fairly well. Certainly, Unwind was better, but perhaps you were more disappointed because of the authors.