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Orphan Black, the many roles of Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Helena, Sarah, Beth, Cosima, and Katja.

Orphan Black is a new science fiction television show produced by BBC America and Space, starring Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. I recently discovered this series, the first season of which just finished airing in the beginning of June 2013, and I plowed through all 10 episodes in two days.  It’s a smart, complex, often dark yet at times quite funny, and well-paced show with a continuous narrative arc that explores the issues of identity and intellectual property. There is fine acting all around but the two standouts are Tatiana Maslany, who plays many roles on the show for which she deservedly won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Jordan Gavaris, who plays the foster brother of one of Maslany’s characters.

Minor spoilers follow, but everything I mention is revealed in the first episode or featured prominently in the official publicity for the show.

The science fiction element of the show is pretty low key. You won’t see much in the way of futuristic technology in this series. Instead, the plot revolves around the controversial subject of human cloning and the early stages of body modification and genetic engineering. Who are we if we are not biologically unique, if there are others out there who are genetically identical to us? How much would our experiences and personal choices shape who we become despite this? What would you do if you encountered to your surprise not one but two or three or more other people who look exactly like you? What is it that makes us human? These are some of the questions explored in Orphan Black.

The series begins by introducing us to the main character of the show, Sarah Manning, played by Maslany. Sarah is an orphan, born in Great Britain, raised by a foster mother, and moved to Canada at an early age. Now a young woman, we meet her trying to escape a wild life of crime, drugs, and an abusive boyfriend. Sarah aims to get her life back together, reclaim custody of her daughter Kira from her foster mother Mrs. S, and scrounge up enough money to make a new life somewhere for herself, her daughter, and her foster brother Felix (played by Gavaris).

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Living Proof by Kira Peikoff

Living Proof is the opera prima of Kira Peikoff, the daughter of Ayn Rand’s intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff. In it, Peikoff uses a near-future setting to explore the logical conclusion of certain prolife arguments with which she disagrees. The plot of this thriller is well-structured and the writing, notwithstanding the occasional imperfection, is decent. However, in the end it gave me the same feeling I get from a dish made from good ingredients that nevertheless wants salt. Or pepper. Or oregano. Or something.

Arianna — a protagonist in the Randian tradition — is a brave, rational, free-thinking and beautiful doctor working at a fertility clinic in New York City in the year 2028. Embryos have been given the same legal status as human beings, and the Department of Embryo Protection is tasked with making sure that embryos not used in implantation are frozen and taken care of instead of being disposed of. The DEP chief becomes suspicious of Arianna when her clinic experiences a sudden and inexplicable surge in popularity. He sends Trent Rowe undercover to earn Arianna’s trust so he can find out what she is up to and if she is “murdering” embryos. What Trent discovers will challenge his beliefs, and he must make a choice between what he was raised to believe, and what Arianna has taught him.

Peikoff’s prose is decent, although she occasionally misuses words, which sound like notes of a melody played flat. On page 58, for instance, she uses “pretext” when she means “pretense.” On page 55 she uses “oblivion” when she cannot possibly have meant it.

She also has an affinity for metaphors, some of which go off well and help elucidate an idea. For instance, on page 261 she writes, “But recently the cells had been tantalizingly close to the goal, developing as astrocytes or microglia instead of oligodendrocytes, like Cokes instead of Diet Cokes.” However, there are just as many times when no metaphor is needed, or the one she chooses takes the reader out of the story. A good example is on page 163, where a character is said to be “trapped in an ethical straitjacket, laced tight with emotional strings.” It is not that the metaphor cannot convey the idea, but the particular one used seems a little silly and distracting, like a knowledgeable professor whose belly spills over the waistline of the pants he bought when he was 40 pounds lighter.

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Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell

Steampunk is currently all the rage, but this book was published before steam engines and airships and whatnot became recently fashionable. And besides, Crystal Rain (Tor, 2007) is not your ordinary steampunk. It has a healthy dose of post-apocalyptic science fiction as well, but here too Crystal Rain breaks the mold. On the one hand, the setting includes sailboats and airships, gaslights, firearms, and, mostly in Capitol City, steam-powered trains, cars, and even a ship, and trolly-like electric cars. I don’t recall any conspicuous leather, aviation goggles, brass, or clockwork though. On the other hand, we quickly find out that this story takes place centuries after some cataclysmic disaster. There are near-mythical stories of the “old fathers,” and Preservationists seek to restore lost technologies. A barren area inland called Hope’s Loss causes people who travel through it to sicken and die. To add another twist, we quickly discover the story takes place not on Earth, but some distant planet, by the casual description of two moons in the sky and tales of the old fathers traveling to the land of Nanagada via “worm’s holes” and warming the planet with mirrors in the sky that have since crashed and burned. Turns out Nanagada is a lost colony planet. Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell adds spice to the mix by populating the setting of his debut novel with a collection of mostly non-white races, dominated by Caribbean culture and dialect.

Actually, the first hints that you’re not reading the typical steampunk or post-apocalyptic novel come in the prologue when a mysterious black man with dreadlocks, dressed in top hat and trenchcoat, falls out of the sky in a “steaming metal boulder,” speaks gibberish to the natives for a minute, then after manipulating his throat suddenly speaks their language. He appears tired and thin, weak, so the natives take him back to their village — though he has strength left in him to kill a jaguar effortlessly with his bare hands on the way. After a week of pigging out, he’s all buffed out. All he tells them is that he’s looking for an old friend. This mysterious, superhuman figure we later find out to be Pepper, who features in several subsequent novels and short stories by Buckell. The author handles him well. Pepper has his limits, which are tested in the novel, and while he often appears to be a “looking out for #1,” cold-blooded mercenary-type, Buckell manages to give him a depth that defies expectations.

But the main protagonist of Crystal Rain is the man Pepper is looking for: John deBrun. John is a sailor, fisherman, and painter, with a hook in place of the left hand that he lost to frostbite on an ill-fated excursion to the icy north. He remembers nothing of his past from before he washed ashore  27 years prior in the town of Brungstun near the Wicked High Mountains that separate the Nanagadan Peninsula from the rest of the continent. But he has an uncanny ability to navigate, as if he has a GPS in his head. He has settled down there, married, and has a 13-year old son. Oh, and he doesn’t seem to have aged much in those 27 years.

Little do most know at the start, but the Azteca, who live on the other side of the Wicked Highs, are being driven by their bloodthirsty gods, the Teotl, to cross the mountains and invade Nanagada. Another main viewpoint character, Oaxyctl (O-ash-k-tul), who is actually an Aztecan double agent spying for the Nanagadans, has the bad luck to be accosted by one if his gods and tasked with tracking down John deBrun and delivering him to it or else Oaxyctl’s life will be forfeit. The Teotl needs John alive because it believes he alone possesses secret codes to unlock the Ma Wi Jung. Whatever that is. (Heh. Is John “The Chosen One”?) Oaxyctl is placed in an impossible position: mortally afraid of his gods, still fundamentally an Aztecan despite working for the Nanagadans, he later comes to like John, whom he rescues from an Aztecan war party’s sacrificial altar after John had been separated from his family and captured. Buckell keeps us wondering when, or if, Oaxyctl will betray John’s trust.

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