orphan black

It seems like you are either a fan of Orphan Black or you haven’t seen it yet, so I have been thinking about why the show works so well. When it was initially described to me it didn’t seem that appealing: a woman sees someone who looks just like her commit suicide and assumes her life.  From that humble beginning, though, the show takes off in some crazy and wonderful directions.  There’s a mystery element, especially at the beginning – who was the dead woman? Why did she kill herself? Why does she look like Sarah? Beth (the dead one) was a cop, so add in the cockeyed police procedural mystery elements of what was she investigating before she died? Then of course we meet the other women who look just like Sarah, start to learn about how they came to be, I don’t want to get too spoilery but I have to say the “c” word if we’re going to get into readalikes: they’re clones. But why? And how many?  And at the end of the last season we get a whole new twist.  The reason the show works so well for me is at least in part the blending of that mystery element, a genuinely suspenseful thriller element, and of course the SF of the clones.  But it would be nothing without the wonderful acting of Tatiana Maslany, who plays her multiple characters so flawlessly that you will absolutely forget they are the same actress.  She is ably supported, especially by the actor who plays her brother Felix, Jordan Gervaris.

All the elements working together mean that there are several ways a readalike list could go.


Lots of excellent stories have been told about clones, most in the SF genre but a few from literature and thrillers. Here’s just a few that show the sheer range of stories to be told with the seed concept of cloning.

     Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

Cherryh never hands things to you in her books – you have to earn them.  She creates vivid SF universes and human dilemmas, but they build slowly.  Cyteen didn’t grab me the first time I tried reading it, but I knew people who were big fans, so I persevered. So worth it. In the novel, there are clones and “azis” – genetically engineered humans that are treated as property. The lead character is a brilliant scientists who happens to also be the clone of a woman who was a leader of the Union. Her progenitor was killed, so there’s a murder mystery in the book (yay for genre blending!), but don’t expect that to be the driver of the plot. Instead we get an interesting look at identity and personality and the ethics of mucking about with the idea of what a person is.

      The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

Nazi make the best bad guys.  It’s just a fact.  In this classic thriller with an SF twist, Nazi Dr. Mengele is still alive, intent on creating a Fourth Reich. A nazi hunter named Yakov Liebermann gets word that Mengele is in Brazil, and that he has been sending former SS officers on missions to kill seemingly random civil servants. Why?  There is a bigger conspiracy afoot and Liebermann chases Mengele and tries to stop the killings.  It’s a classic form the author of Rosemary’s Baby, fast-paced and sinister.

      Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I hate to spoil the central SF conceit of this novel, but I think every reviewer already did that for me.  The novel is told form the point of view of Kathy, a girl who grew up at a private institution that we first think is a school and soon learn is just a place that they are raising clones created as spare parts for rich people.  It sounds like a thriller premise, but the author is Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote Remains of the Day, and so you instead get a beautiful, slow-moving meditation.  What does it mean to be a clone meant to be disposable? How do you live your life with that knowledge? Gorgeous.

      Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

One of the SF classics that is so much a classic that people seem to forget that it is SF.  You probably read it in school. The book is set is a dystopian future and opens on a school trip to a “hatchery” where cloned human embryos are grown to spec, designed to be leaders or peons as society needs. Everyone has a role to play and they are all perfectly content. Well, the drugs help.

There are a LOT of clones in fiction, so here are a few more:

Stolen Identities/Assumed Identity:

Especially in the early days of season 1, the storyline surrounding Sarah assuming Beth’s identity is dominant.  Of course, there are numerous instances of one clone impersonating another throughout the series.

      The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

A rich man sends Tom Ripley to Europe to try to convince his son Dickie to come home.  He enjoys the lifestyle he experiences in Dickie’s company, and when it looks like Dickie has grown tired of him Tom kills him and assumes his identity.  Obviously darker than Sarah, Tom is a true sociopath. But the idea of insinuating yourself into someone else’s life and the dangers of discovery should appeal to those who like Orphan Black, especially season 1.

      The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, with no memory of who she is. She finds two letters, each from herself with instructions for a choice of two lives.  She can run, taking money she has stashed away and try to make a new life, or she can impersonate herself, taking up her role in the secret society where Myfanwy has a leading role. She decides to take up her old life, faking her way as she figures out how to be Myfanwy again. And her job? Protecting England from supernatural threats, which is pretty cool. This is an amazing mix of spy thriller, SF, and fantasy, with a dash of Lovecraftian horror to boot. Myfanwy gets a chance to decide what her identity will be – the dull but efficient bureaucrat, or something new.

     Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

If you haven’t read Tey, she is one of the official treasures of golden age mysteries – right up there with Christie and Sayers. In this twisty tale Simon Ashby is set to inherit his family’s estate, Latchetts, and the fortune that goes along with it.  Alec Loding is an actor and friend of the family who is walking down the street  in London when he sees someone he thinks is Simon.  Instead it is an American named Brat Farrar. Simon had an older twin brother, Patrick, who disappeared a decade ago, and it was presumed that he had killed himself. Seeing a way to profit himself, Alec convinces Brat to impersonate Patrick and set himself up to inherit Latchetts in Simon’s place. But as Brat insinuates himself into the Ashby family, he finds the role more and more difficult; especially as he begins to suspect that Patrick’s death wasn’t an accident.

A few more identity theft books:

Just for Alison fans:

      And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman

I love Alison, the good girl of all the clone club.  But when Alison goes bad? She’s pretty magnificent. And when bad Alison comes out to play, it’s often in defense of her family. In Lippman’s thriller, Heloise Lewis projects a perfect image of a devoted soccer mom to her friends and neighbors, but she has a dark history. Her perfect life threatens to unravel when her past catches up to her. Heloise will defend her son and the life she created for herself. Lippman writes the very enjoyable Tess Monahan series, but her standalone thrillers, often set in  the shadowy corners of the picket-fenced suburbs of Baltimore are psychological suspense winners.

Other SF issues of identity:

      Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Breq was once an ancillary – a fully integrated part of a ship called the Justice of Toren. She lost her ship, and in doing so lost her sense of identity. What was she alone and apart from the ship? There’s a lot of absolutely fantastic things going on in this award-winning novel including some really interesting gender politics, a vivid star-spanning empire led by a clone, the AI’s of the empire ships and the ancillaries that staff them, a kick-ass revenge plot… I could go on and on.  There’s a reason this swept up every SF award that exists.

      Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

This has one of those great opening lines: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Forces, gets downloaded into a new and improved soldier body, and gets sent out to fight aliens. It’s a lot of fun, high adventure old skool SF, but there are also some deeper things to enjoy.  The politics of his universe are more nuanced than seem apparent on the surface, and the consequences of this soldierly do-over get some thought – although not a lot of deep thought.  There is also the character of Jane Sagan, who John meets in the CDF. She looks like his dead wife, but unlike John is simply a DNA copy rather than a personality download. One of the interesting things about the series as it develops is their relationship.

      Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

With a very skillfully realized world where human consciousness can be downloaded into new “sleeves”, Morgan explores the consequences of life where death can be cheated by anyone with enough money. The plot revolves around Takeshi Kovacs who has recently been re-sleeved in the body of a disgraced cop. He’s been hired to find out who killed Laurens Bancroft, a Meth (short for Methuselah) billionaire. The rich man has, of course, been re-sleeved, but he is missing 48 hours and wants to know who killed him.  This is a very earthy, violent book, not for the squeamish. I loved it.

Stories of women and their control of their bodies:

Without getting too spoilery for those new to the show, the clone club is changing in the new season. We’ll see what happens, but like with any long-running tv show you have to reveal things and sometimes that knowledge changes the dynamic. For me it added a nice pervy element to think we didn’t know what the Dyad group wanted with all of the clones of beautiful women. And of course we still have a LOT of things we don’t know about the purpose of Sarah and her sisters.  SF has some great stories of women reduced to being just bodies to be used, and here are just a few.

       The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In a future world where the birth rate has declined, fertile women are rounded up, indoctrinated as “handmaids,” and forced to bear children to prominent men. Offred is one such handmaid, living in the home of the Commander and his wife and hoping to get pregnant, as that is the only way her life will have value.  The chilling thing about this setting is that it is near-future: Offred remembers her old life when she had a job and a husband and a child of her own.  It’s absolutely essential reading.

      When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Another dystopian work, wherein felons are not imprisoned, but have their skin dyed to indicate their crimes. They have to make their way in a society that is crushed by religious dogma with their guilt obvious to all around them. Hannah is a red; her crime the murder of her own child, as that is how abortion is viewed in this society. Yes, it is heavy-handed in its Scarlet Letter analogy, but Hannah grows a lot over the arc of the book. The pacing is that of a thriller, as Hannah flees the halfway home she has been placed in and seeks a place where she can live without fear and persecution.

      Archetype by M.D. Waters

Another story where a woman wakes up with no memory of who she is. In this case Emma wakes to find a man who claims to be her husband. Declan is loving and cares for her tenderly, explaining she was in an accident. But she begins to have nightmares that tell a different story. Is she a comfortable wife, or is she a rebel who fought against the forces trying to keep women as property? She remembers civil war, and another man that she loved.

Women banding together:

One of the most appealing things about Orphan Black for me is the way the clones support each other.  Beyond the impressive fact that it is really one actress, I can lose myself in the belief that these are individual women who are in a scary, dangerous situation and they rely on each other to find their way through it.  When I was thinking about books that had that dynamic, I was actually really hard-pressed to think of anything SFF that qualified.  There are tons of stories in women’s fiction and chick lit of women banding together and supporting each other through rough times (probably a reason I have always enjoyed the genre) but I would love more suggestions of the band of sisters trope in SF or Fantasy, if anyone can think of more.

      Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

This is one of the only recent examples I could think of, where women pulled together to save themselves. Yes, there are men in the book, but – refreshingly – no romantic subplot where the man saves the poor females. Set in a steampunk old west that is rough, violent and chock full of prostitutes. Karen is a “soiled dove” working at Madame Damnable’s establishment, where she and her sisters in trade serve a more respectable crowd than the poor girls who work the cribs at the waterfront.  When one of those girls escapes the cribs and runs to Madame’s for help, she brings the wrath of crib owner Peter Bantle on the house.  Bantle, on top of being a vicious bully, seems to have a device that can control people’s minds. Karen and the other women at Madame Damnable’s work together to defeat Bantle.



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