Review of Prototype by M.D. Waters
by M.D. Waters
Not sure what my record is for “longest time between book and its sequel,” but Prototype might be the holder. I read Archetype over 6 years ago. Since then, this sequel has sat on my to-read list, never quite making it to my bookshelf. Until now! I recently conducted a joyous purge of my to-read list as part of migrating it to The StoryGraph—somehow, Prototype made the cut, but I was galvanized to finally borrow it from my library. I remember so little about Archetype, though, and that might have been to this book’s detriment. I didn’t enjoy this as much as my review of Archetype suggests that 2015 Kara enjoyed it. Maybe this is because I’m a different person, maybe it’s the book—maybe it’s both!
Little time has passed since the conclusion of the first book. Emma is a clone. In the first book, she awakes with little personal memory. She’s told she is married to Declan Burke, the rich dude who paid for her to be cloned. In reality, she was married to a resistance member, Noah Tucker, although her last name is Wade, so, you know, already a lot to keep track of. Emma used to be part of the resistance! She has a daughter! And now she is on the run from Declan Burke, searching for her parents—also former resistance members—and struggling to find freedom in a world where neither clones nor women, especially fertile women, are particularly free. Oh, and she never uses contractions, even in her first-person narration, and I don’t remember if the first book ever explains this but it’s weird.
My review of Archetype focuses on two ideas. The first is whether or not the novel “feels like” what we call young adult literature. The second is how its themes and motifs tie into novels with similar premises around an ultra-overt form of patriarchy. I say “ultra-overt” because all forms of patriarchy are obsessed with controlling the fertility of people who can reproduce—just see the latest round of anti-abortion laws in the United States. But books like Archetype/Prototype and The Handmaid’s Tale crank this up to 11 in the hopes that it will prompt people to pay attention to the inequality that women face today.
In my original review I said this lovely nugget:
Look, in the way I presently identify and perform my gender, I’m not a woman. So I’m not trying to speak for women here.
I love the presently in there, since it so carefully qualified something I had no idea at the time would change but ended up changing! Oh, 2015 Kara. I wish you had been slightly bolder in exploring what was going on in your heart and your mind….
Like, I still can’t speak for women here and couldn’t even if I were a cis woman. But Prototype definitely hit differently now that I understand that I am a trans woman. I can’t bear children. Lots of cis women can’t, so that doesn’t make me feel any less like a woman. Moreover, I’ve never particularly wanted kids, so I’m not too worried about finding alternatives. And yet, the particular premise of this book—cloning women to “cure” their infertility—prompted me to think philosophically about this.
If the technology in this book existed, we wouldn’t have to use it on cis people only. We could clone trans people new bodies that are congruent with their genders—just tweak a chromosome here, a gene sequence there. If I had access to a cloning technology that would put me into the cisfeminine analogue of my body, would I go through with such a procedure? (I am delicately side-stepping the issues of continuity of identity much like this book sweeps them away.) I know, of course, that in the real world trans people probably wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of beneficiaries of such technology. As this book observes, after controlling the fertility of women, the next item on the list is preserving the lives of rich and powerful men. Still, it’s an intriguing and perhaps even unsettling idea.
Prototype walks a fine line with this discussion of cloning technology. Like I said above, it evades some of the deeper philosophical question even as it verges on the pseudoscientific and metaphysical at times. I get the impression Waters doesn’t really want to spend too much time on the implications of this technology so much as use it as a vehicle for the story she’s telling about a woman trying to get back to her family. And you know what? Fair. I might not like that storytelling decision, but I respect that Waters makes it and sticks with it instead of half-measures.
So even though there is a subplot here about overturning an evil cloning corporation, don’t mistake it for the real story. This is about Emma, Noah, and their daughter Adrienne attempting to overcome all the obstacles trying to keep them apart. One of those obstacles is, in no small part, Emma’s own doubts about her authenticity of self and where she belongs. I wish that we saw her struggle with that more fully—the scenes where she is confronting Declan or in his power ring hollow, the way she talks about how much she desires him even though she hates how he treats her. I’m not trying to deny that people often still want to be with their abusers even while recognizing them as abusers—but Emma’s voice feels lacking in nuance. There’s too much telling going on.
I also wasn’t a fan of Emma’s constant insistence on motherhood as her anchor for her identity. Again, I don’t want to invalidate anyone here who sees their status as a parent as their anchor. It just feels like a weird choice for a book that is, on one layer, a critique of our society’s obsession with people who can reproduce only existing for the purpose of reproduction. I suppose we might interpret the fact that this Emma didn’t physically birth Adrienne as Waters trying to tell us that motherhood is about your emotional connection to a child rather than the physical bonding of birth. That’s a plus for parents who adopt, I guess. Nevertheless, like my complaint about Emma’s voice, my critique here isn’t so much what Waters is trying to say but rather her skill at saying it.
In short, Prototype strikes me as a book that swings big but doesn’t quite succeed in hitting the emotional notes it aims for. I’ve said this before in reviews: I would rather see a book swing big and miss than not try at all. So in that sense, I liked this book. I don’t regret reading it 6 years after the first one. That being said, I don’t see myself raving about it and recommending it any time soon. Even though I believe this book is exploring some valuable territory about patriarchy, womanhood, and relationships, there are much better books out there doing the same thing.