June 20, 2024


Science It Works

A Science Fictional Domestic Thriller: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

As her scientific career is climbing to fresh heights, Doctor Evelyn Caldwell finds out that her husband, Nathan, has been cheating on her—but not with a colleague. Instead, he’s hijacked her cloning research to create an ideal replacement wife from Evelyn’s own genetic material: Martine. She’s almost identical to Evelyn in appearance, but Nathan has altered her to be more subservient, family-oriented, and attentive to his needs. However, the real problems start when Martine calls Evelyn in a panic after killing Nathan in self-defense… and Evelyn decides to help with the cover-up.

The Echo Wife is a phenomenal, creepy, significant novel—but it’s a hard read, and wrestling with its implications is harder. The twisting, remorseless plot seamlessly combines domestic thriller with cutting-edge science fiction, dragging the reader along as the Caldwells’ secrets are unearthed one at a time. Sarah Gailey’s incisive prose lends to the suffocating atmosphere that pervades the book, maintaining a heightened state of discomfort that is magnified by thematic explorations of spousal abuse, cloning ethics, and straight-up murder.

First off, I can’t overstate the importance of Gailey’s handsome, precise use of language. I’m used to appreciating their facility with craft, but for this book, it’s a requirement for tackling the gruesome logic of the plot with care. It’s in the little things, like when Evelyn arrives to assist in hiding Nathan’s body and throws away the chicken Martine left on the kitchen counter—“who knew how long it had been sitting out?”—but puts the onions back in the fridge. Or the larger moments where I felt a pang of intense psychic nakedness, such as when she remembers how her father taught her with violence not to ask the wrong questions and then thinks:

I couldn’t tell my well-meaning friends and colleagues to try again, I couldn’t grip their faces until their bones creaked, I couldn’t make them understand that they shouldn’t ask.

They weren’t afraid of me.

They had no reason to be.

The bleeding edge of emotional realism Gailey captures with The Echo Wife is going to stick with me for a long time. Significant spoilers follow; also, broad content warnings going forward.

To start: the cloning method Evelyn has developed is fairly horrific. Forced-growth disposable bodies are treated with hormones and brain-mapping to mimic their base human; then, to ensure the bodies match, clones are “conditioned” under sedation by Evelyn and her tech: bones broken and set wrong if appropriate, teeth removed, flesh cut or abraded. After all, if the politician’s double doesn’t walk with the same limp, is it really a double? If the process fails, or simply after the clone has been used, they’re killed and cremated. If you’re thinking, holy shit, that’s fucked up—well, nothing gets easier from here.

The Caldwell cloning process stands as a nauseating, powerful metaphor for the combination of biology and experience that makes us… as well as our disposability as partners, laborers, et cetera. And sure, the science-fictional conceit drives the narrative; without it, Nathan wouldn’t have been able to create his ‘perfect’ housewife. But the real heft of The Echo Wife comes from the ethical implications of that plot. Gailey juxtaposes Evelyn, Martine, and the Nathan(s) to draw out a grim philosophical question: how much does our “conditioning and programming” shape—or violently alter—our desires and behaviors? And what does that mean for our ability to consent?

One of the central motifs of the novel is the heteronormative expectations of marriage and reproduction that haunt Evelyn’s life. Her father was an abuser, and within her own marriage, Nathan’s relentless awfulness made my teeth itch: his controlling tantrums, his shoddy work ethic, his surety that she’ll give up her career to have a child… then later, his willingness to murder multiple attempted-wives as he sought a human pet with no desires of her own. The cruelty Evelyn and Martine survive from the men in their lives is staggering and realistic.

Gailey, though, doesn’t leave the question of gendered abuse and relationships there. Evelyn is a survivor and an abuser—which the reader experiences intimately, from inside her head. She struggles with urges to harm and control Martine, often giving in when her patience is tested. Sometimes, though, she does it simply because exerting control pleases her, or seems easier in the moment. When the pair of them create Nathan2, she takes pleasure in hurting him as well. As a reader I agreed with her impulse, much as I did Martine’s willingness to “condition” his body given what he’d done to hers, but that says as much about me as it does the text.

Also, Martine’s struggle to survive and work through the legitimacy of her desires, her consent or lack thereof, is powerful stuff. Does she want a child because she was programmed to, and if so… does that matter? One of the most blistering arguments in the novel is between her and Evelyn as she explains that she doesn’t care about the reason she wants the baby—she’s made an active choice to have it that deserves respect. That’s a conflict with deep and clear resonances outside of the world of the novel. (An aside: Martine’s life with Nathan1 was so upsetting that I’m choosing not to discuss it here.)

By locating this struggle within the cloned character, a double of the protagonist, Gailey poses a compelling argument. The “conditioning and programming” the clones undergo mimics their source-human’s life, but if the clones are functionally people, then that source-human is also no more than a product of their own organic “conditioning and programming”–and the same logic applies to us all. The novel confronts Evelyn with the fact that perhaps, all along, she hasn’t been making specimens but people. Her lab assistant has already said this earlier in the book; the reader also picks up on it with building horror throughout.

However, when Evelyn is confronted—when she has to decide what to do about Nathan2 after discovering the garden full of dead women—she refuses to engage, because she would rather preserve her current work and life. The novel’s final question, then, might be: how able are people to break free of their conditioning? The answer, for Evelyn, seems to be that it’s almost impossible. She moves herself and Martine into her childhood home, where she requires the child and ‘wife’ be quiet while she works in her father’s study, allowing Martine the same once per week questioning block she was once given.

Literally, she continues the pattern of abuse with herself in the patriarch’s role. Gailey doesn’t present a sexual component to the relationship between Evelyn and Martine, but their partnership is nonetheless a warped, queer marriage. Never before have I finished a book hoping the protagonist is later murdered by her clone-wife-sibling-pet and buried in the fucking garden, but, here we are. (I would also appreciate seeing Nathan2 meet a similar fate to Nathan1, but I understand I’m supposed to grapple with whether his reprograming made him less likely to murder again.)

While it won’t be for everyone, The Echo Wife is a brilliant, scouring novel that left me productively upset and unsettled. Grappling as the story does with abuse and trauma; with questions of how much our desires are created through those experiences; and with problems of control and consent… to do less than cause profound discomfort would, I think, disrespect the seriousness and complexity of those issues. At the end of the day, I appreciate books that haunt the reader—of which The Echo Wife is a strong example—though I advise spacing that experience out with some gentler fare if needed.

The Echo Wife is available from Tor Books.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.