The Future Happens Twice by Matt Browne.Review by Andrea Johnson
There is really so much going on at once in this book, for the sake of brevity I'll stay with the basics. Against the backdrop of the world's biggest experiment dealing with nature vs. nuture, Debrya Handsen, a young linguistics researcher is brought into a secret government lab to program androids. Yup, androids who are going to act like humans for 4 human children, who will be sent across the galaxy in an ark-like spaceship with 5,000 specially selected embryos to restart the human race after the earth has become inhospitable to life. The androids must be perfectly programmed, so the children never know they are being raised by robots, and continue to believe their parents are normal people.. The scientists believe they know how the children will react to any situation, because these children are in fact, genetic twins of American adults who have been observed their entire lives.
The plot follows Debrya, with her doubts about the experiment, and her romantic escapades with a co-worker, and the 4 teenagers, who believe they are travelling across the stars, but who, in reality are locked in a fake spaceship under the Nevada desert. The scientists do eventually tell the children their "parents" are androids, and that the children aren't brothers and sisters—they are in fact, not related at all. In a few very awkward scenes, white jacketed scientists realize they better give these kids a talk about the birds and bees. When Debrya questions the ethics of this experiment, she's given shady answers. When the children are freed from their fake science fiction prison, the scientists aren't really sure what to do with them, and assume they can just dump the children into a normal life, and be done with it. That solution really doesn't help the mental health of the children, and it didn't work for me either.
Browne leads us on a interesting wild goose chase to find the reasoning behind this experiment, and why it must succeed. When and how will the earth become impossible to live on? Nuclear war? Too much pollution and global warming? A comet hitting? When we do learn the dark secret, it sounds ridiculous, only because the foreshadowing is constantly pushing the reader in a far different direction, and when the scientists are asked when this awful event may occur, the answer is 10 years, 150 years, or maybe never. "Maybe Never" is the worst reason I've ever heard for a morally iffy experiment costing billions of dollars, when a cheaper, safer, more ethical solution could be found within colonies on other planets and moons within our own solar system.
I think my issues with this novel stem from the fact that Browne simply tried to cram too much into it. I've seen this stunt pulled, and pulled off well by seasoned authors like Kim Stanley Robinson. The scientific info dumps felt like a season's worth of Discovery Channel prime time specials on planets outside our solar system, natural disasters, test tube babies, nature vs. nuture, space travel, cryogenics, computer programming, and more. To make things worse, characters were under-developed, plot points were not thought through, and there were climactic moments didn't match the rest of the story. The whole thing had a clinical, technical feel to it.
The silver lining is that I've read worse. But not much.
Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.