Review of Constance by Matthew FitzSimmons
by Matthew FitzSimmons
Ever read a book where the middle is the best part? Weird, I know. Usually we criticize a book for having a middle third that drags before the action picks up towards the end. But in the case of Constance, this was my experience: the first and final thirds of this book were fine but somewhat unremarkable; the middle third, on the other hand, was a fascinating exploration of the human condition. Overall these combine into a science-fiction thriller that is, if not very original in its tropes, quite a good execution thereof.
Matthew FitzSimmons boldly imagines a world not much more than a decade away from our own. It’s 2038, going on 2039. Constance—Con to her friends—is a struggling musician holding a candle for her former bandmate, who is in a coma after their van crashed over a year ago. Unlike most people in her situation, Con has a clone on ice at your standard evil megacorp Pangenesis, because her estranged aunt is the inventor of the consciousness scanning and storage technology that makes human cloning possible. So, every month, Con gets her mind scanned at a swank facility before returning to her dingy life. Until one day, when she wakes up after the scan to find out she is her clone—and that her previous self died a year and a half prior, and she has been decanted long after what is considered the “safe” amount of time to pass to awaken a clone.
And then Con needs to solve her own murder.
It’s this last part that really got me, as I suspect it will get you. Who wouldn’t want to read a mystery like this? Fortunately, FitzSimmons delivers a tantalizing set of clues and circumstances to keep us guessing. Some elements of the plot are predictable, alas. This is what I meant about the final third fizzling somewhat for me. It wasn’t exactly hard to guess who would be revealed as the Big Bad after the final twist. Likewise, Con’s reaction and resolution to this confrontation is predictable as well, which takes away some of my enjoyment of the ending. I don’t want to be too harsh: FitzSimmons ably ties up the loose ends and gives us a satisfactory conclusion, making this quite a nice, tidy standalone novel. I liked it. But if you were hoping for something that breaks the thriller formula more than that initial premise, you’re going to be disappointed on that score.
Where Constance does shine, in my opinion, is the part of the book in which Con must unravel not only the mystery of her murder but the mystery of herself. It’s a commentary on how much and how little we change as humans: Con is the same person she was before, except she is missing the most recent eighteen months of her memory. In those eighteen months, she somehow fell in love, married, moved to a different state, and who else knows what? Imagine waking up with that kind of amnesia—not a complete loss of episodic memory, but just enough that you felt out of sync with everything around you. Con frequently expresses bemusement at how much her life changed in less than two years, yet isn’t that so often the case? It’s just coming up on two years now that I realized I was trans, and in that time, I have come out, changed my name, and done innumerable other things that have altered my life (for the better), and in the same amount of time, we have all struggled with the dramatic changes wrought by a pandemic. Can you imagine someone who slipped into a coma just before the pandemic waking up today? Ouch.
So it’s very satisfying to watch Con deal with her discomfort, which spans several levels. First, of course, is her discomfort with being a clone. Is she really even a person? Is she really her? Other people’s reactions and beliefs notwithstanding, Con herself has a certain amount of internalized prejudice. Second is her bewilderment over getting married to a pro athlete. When she discovers why she was making secret trips (which the police viewed as an affair), things fall into place. There are some beautiful scenes of acceptance amidst grief during this rediscovery, by the way, and it was probably here that FitzSimmons’s writing shines the most brightly.
Many of the tropes around cloning as used in this book are far from original. The fingerprints of other science fiction are visible all over these ideas. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I appreciate it when writers acknowledge and embrace such tropes. But if you are looking for a breathtaking new perspective on the issues of identity and individuality that beset human cloning, you will not find that here.
Constance started as a book with a premise that made me want to read it, and that is always a promising sign. Sometimes such books prove to be a huge letdown—thankfully, that isn’t the case here. It never quite exceeds its potential, mind you, but it was a pleasant way to spend part of a weekend.