If fiction is to be believed, cloning always goes badly. Always. But what if — and stay with me here — what if it didn’t? In the following email interview about her near-future science fiction novel The Sentient (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), writer Nadia Afifi explains how her novel takes a different approach to genetic photocopying.
I always like to start with an overview of a book’s plot. So, what is The Sentient about, and when and where is it set?
The Sentient takes place a little over 200 years into the future in a large Pacific Northwestern city named Westport. It’s a kind of post-dystopian future, a mixture of good and bad. After a terrible global event called the Cataclysm, a period of war and instability followed before the world found its footing again. But in North America, groups of violent fundamentalists retreated into isolated compounds in the American Southwest, practicing a very oppressive form of a futuristic religion with hallucinatory drugs and a belief in parallel universes. My main character, Amira, escaped from one of those compounds as a teenager and carved a new life for herself in Westport, studying neuroscience. She specializes in a skill called holomentic reading, which involves accessing and interpreting a person’s memories. But when she’s assigned to a controversial cloning project, her skills are tested — the women they’re trying to clone are all dying and no one knows why. The last surviving subject, a woman who also escaped from the compounds like Amira, is psychologically unraveling. Amira discovers that the woman’s memories are being tampered with, to hide a secret, and she starts to unravel a wider conspiracy against the cloning project.
Where did you first get the idea for The Sentient?
It started out as this vague idea that I wanted to tell a different kind of cloning story. I’ve always rolled my eyes at the trope in movies, TV shows, and novels that cloning technology always goes wrong, because we’re not meant to “play God.” The scientists are always framed as evil and the ambition to clone as inherently deviant. I wanted to write a cloning novel where cloning isn’t the main problem — it’s the irrational fear and opposition to it that drives the story’s conflict. While, of course, throwing a few twists along the way.
From that original thought, it morphed into something bigger. There’s a conflict at play between science and religion, and the way people try to reconcile the two. The compounds practice a very fundamentalist version of their faith that we can probably recognize in many societies today, but there is also a New Age religious movement in The Sentient that turns out to be just as dangerous — maybe even more so, because they wrap their ideology in the cloak of scientific discovery. Amira discovers by the end of the story that the world isn’t as black and white as she wants it to be, and is forced to make some difficult decisions that will play out in the next books (fingers crossed).
It sounds like The Sentient is a hard science fiction story. Is that how you see it?
That’s an interesting question…. Even though some thought went into the technology, I wouldn’t consider it hard science fiction, just because I don’t go too aggressively into explaining all of the science. To me, hard science fiction is usually written by writers with STEM backgrounds for readers with STEM backgrounds who are interested in diving into the “how.” While I care about getting the basics of the science right — or at least in making it somewhat plausible — I don’t really dwell on it.
I’ve heard others describe The Sentient as dystopian, but I don’t see it that way, either. I’d label it as near-future science fiction.
Now, while The Sentient is your first published novel, you’ve written some short stories. Are there any writers who had a big influence on this book but not on anything else you’ve written?
Definitely. I’d say Octavia Butler and Paolo Bacigalupi. Butler’s Parable Of The Sower did a great job of showing how apocalyptic events can feed into religious extremism and how it can shape people who find themselves caught in difficult times. And The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, and definitely influenced The Sentient to a degree. I love how it has so much to say about climate change and biotech without shoving it down the reader’s throat. He creates a complex world, full of complex problems without easy answers, and his characters feel like fully-formed people, not mouthpieces for a particular viewpoint. It’s definitely an approach to story-telling I believe in. A novel with political ideas still has to, first and foremost, tell a good story and have characters you want to spend time with.
How about non-literary influences; was The Sentient influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I definitely got some inspiration from an older computer game called The Longest Journey, which first came out in 1999. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best science fiction / fantasy stories told across any platform — movies, novels, etcetera. The world-building is incredible — so creative and unlike anything else I’ve seen. The futuristic city in the game, Newport, definitely inspired some of the areas of my main city, Westport (yep, even the name is similar). I also loved how it had a female protagonist who approached problems and got out of bad situations in a way that might be described as more “feminine” — using her empathy and humanity, rather than fists and weapons. I have nothing against a badass heroine who can fight, but I don’t always find those characters relatable, and I’d rather see a different kind of hero model in fiction. Amira can’t punch, kick, or shoot weapons, but she uses her intelligence and emotional perceptions to navigate her world.
What about jigsaw puzzles? Because you wrote on your website, “I am highly skilled at jigsaw puzzles” and that, “…if a meteor ever approaches the Earth and Jeff Goldblum needs someone who can put a 12,000-piece jigsaw puzzle together quickly as part of a plan to save the world, go to my contact page.” Do you think your skill assembling small curvy pieces of cardboard had any influence on The Sentient? Or did I just spoil the ending…
[laughs] No, but now that you throw that out there, I kind of want to work a jigsaw puzzle situation into the series’ dramatic conclusion. It’s kind of a stretch, but when Amira’s digging through a person’s memories and trying to put the pieces of the past together, she is assembling a puzzle, in a way. There’s a scene where three faces are blurred in an old, tampered memory, and Amira needs to uncover their identities to get to the bottom of the wider conspiracy. It’s only when she fixes all of the woman’s memories that the full picture is revealed and their faces take form.
But seriously, I just love puzzles. They’re therapeutic. I can lose hours sitting on the floor, putting a 6,000-piece puzzle together — and wake up the next day with an eighty-year-old’s back.
Now, as you probably know, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, others are parts of a series. What is The Sentient?
It was always intended to be the first in a series. I made The Sentient as self-contained as possible, so its main story can stand alone, but by the time you reach the end, it’s clear that the main conflict has only just warmed up, and Amira has a shocking discovery to contend with in the subsequent novels.
So then what are your plans going forward?
It’s definitely planned as a set of three books. Early on, when I was mapping the plot for The Sentient, I knew exactly how I wanted Book Three to end and had a road map for getting there. And it’s an end — there’s nowhere to go from there, really, and I don’t believe in dragging out stories beyond their obvious conclusion. Some writers are great at handling a series with an overarching story arc that spans many books, but I find it hard to stretch out a story idea beyond three books. I need to know where my characters are going.
The current working titles for Books 2 and 3 are The Congregant and The Transcendent, respectively, and I’m hard at work on Book 2 right now.
As you probably know, there are people who, upon learning that The Sentient is the first book of a trilogy, will hold off reading it until all three are out, and some will further decide to read all three in a row. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read The Sentient?
My recommendation is…don’t wait! The Sentient definitely ends with a turn of events that (hopefully) makes you excited for the second book. Book two will have a far more dramatic cliffhanger, if I stick to my current plan. But the story’s contained enough that it won’t require you to read the trilogy in rapid succession.
I do have a cousin who read an early draft years ago and has been anxiously awaiting the sequel ever since, so he might give you a different answer. Hopefully, he’ll be beta reading the next one soon.
Earlier I asked if The Sentient had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest in adapting this story into a movie, show, or game?
I think the story is made for a TV series, with a lot of twists and turns throughout the first novel, but could also work well as a movie. There are no plans to adapt it yet, but that would be incredibly exciting.
If that did happen, who would you want them to cast as Amira and the other main characters?
I could picture either Ana de Armas from the Blade Runner 2049 or Tessa Thompson, who played Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, as Amira. The Amira in my mind looks like someone in between those two actors, and I think they could pull off her mixture of resilience and sadness.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Sentient, what similar sci-fi space novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I’ll always recommend The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi for its themes and incredibly vivid world-building, although it doesn’t include your criteria of a space setting. Other good reads are The Three Body Problem [by Cixin Liu] and [S.A. Corey’s] Expanse series if you want recent, solid science fiction stories with plenty of science and broad themes.
Two great novellas I’d recommend, if you want something short and quick, are The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin and The Haunting Of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark. The first one is a great, trippy story that explores some interesting ideas around consciousness. The second is a fun, alternate version of Cairo populated by jinn and other mythical creatures.