By Rachel Cohn
Hyperion, 336 pp.; $17.99, for readers 14 and up
There's something about clones that fascinates, whether it's real-world breakthroughs like Dolly the sheep or disturbing fictional accounts, like "Blade Runner." In "Beta," it's teenagers being replicated in the kickoff to a new series from bestselling young-adult author Rachel Cohn.
Many a parent has longed for the type of teen presented here — one who doesn't talk back, plays by the rules and is always accommodating. Programmed by computer and stripped of the pesky hormones that prompt erratic, unwanted behavior in real flesh-and-blood teenagers, clones would seem to be all upside. At least it seemed like a good idea on Demesne, the idyllic, equatorial island where the action in "Beta" takes place.
The exclusive island, with its scientifically altered climate, is a playground for the wealthy who flock to its white-sand beaches to relax and restore themselves in super-oxygenated air and violet-colored sea water. Living in paradise, the rich are, of course, loathe to deal with a human help staff, so the butlers, maids and cooks are all clones whose data chips ensure they will do nothing but serve their owners.
As the book opens, the local cloning lab has just finished an experiment. In addition to cranking out the usual supply of hot-bodied, computer-programmed twentysomethings who will be decommissioned at the unsightly age of 45, they're beginning to make teenagers. Elysia is one of two so-called betas, or prototype teen clones, recycled from dead bodies whose souls were extracted to prevent their clones from feeling emotion.
At age 16, Elysia has no life experience. She has no brain. But she does have an exquisite face and perfect bikini body. Who cares that she can't think for herself? She's a "tasty," by island standards, and that's all that matters to a "fancy lady" in a diamond-studded silk dress who purchases Elysia as a substitute for the rebellious daughter who recently left for college and as a plaything for her Army-bound son.
Cohn mines the comedic value of her robotic hottie. In her interactions with humans, Elysia is constantly accessing her database to understand what they're saying. When a character encourages Elysia to keep something on the "down low," she casts her eyes toward his shoes.
The cloning of teens, especially female ones, comes with a feminist undercurrent that, like many modern dystopian and sci-fi titles for young adults, speaks to society's inclination to strip women of their individuality and, in this case, objectify them. But fancy lady would have been wise to heed the warnings about Elysia when she purchased her at a discount. Being a Beta, Elysia isn't guaranteed to operate as programmed.
This bit of foreshadowing begins to make itself apparent once Elysia settles into the family mansion and begins to recall memories from the dead girl upon whom she is based. She isn't supposed to taste, or derive pleasure from, foods such as chocolate, but she does. She isn't supposed to be attracted to boys, but she is. She also makes out with some in a few steamy scenes, one of them violent, that push the recommended reading age for the book to 14.
Cohn is best known for co-writing the young-adult-novel-turned-movie "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" with fellow novelist David Levithan. With "Beta," she has a terrific premise that is equally well executed in a book that is mostly sci-fi but incorporates some elements of modern dystopian fiction. Set in the future, at a time after something called the water wars, all is not as it seems in the idyllic environs presented in "Beta," Elysia discovers as she begins to "awaken" and acknowledge her feelings. An uprising seems inevitable for "Beta's" follow-up. Readers can only hope it will be as thrilling as this series kickoff.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun