THE SENTIENT By Nadia Afifi, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE SENTIENT By Nadia Afifi, Review

Clones, cults and consciousness, Alexander Wallace discovers proof of life within the pages of The Sentient.
I’ve sung before the praises of Netflix algorithms and Youtube recommendations and /r/FreeEbooks. Now, I shall briefly extol another way of finding unexpected joys, one much older and revered by those who love science fiction. Let me salute for a short moment Fantasy & Science Fiction, the magazine whose excellent taste in stories exposed me to the wonderful work of Nadia Afifi, whose novel The Sentient deeply impressed me.

It was in the November/December 2020 issue that I read her story The Bahrain Underground Bazaar, a tale that starts off about an underground market where you can virtually experience different ways of dying and ends up at the stone walls of Petra. It was easily the best story in the issue, and one that made her the first author from a magazine whose work I have actively sought out.

The Sentient is Afifi’s first novel, released in September 2020. The plot concerns Amira Valdez, an escapee from the Children of the New Covenant, a fundamentalist cult in the deserts of the American Southwest that reminded me of a certain sort of ultra-traditionalist Mormon sect. Coming from that literal cult, she makes her way to Westport, a metropolis on the Pacific coast of Oregon, to work at the Academy. After a psychologically invasive entrance examination, she is assigned to Pandora: the project to create a viable human clone through a surrogate mother. The current test subject is Rozene, a survivor of a similar cult, who fell into this particular business as a result of her escape.
Much of The Sentient is a detective story, and that detective story is moved along by one of Afifi’s inventions: a device that allows a doctor or other medical professional to view the visual thoughts and the visual memories of a patient projected on the walls of the operating room. This device (both in the literal mechanical sense and the literary plotting sense) allows Afifi to explore her characters in ways that more mundane stories could not, as you get to see the depths of their psyches while maintaining a consistent point of view. It’s an interesting conceit, and a well-used one.

Amira is a therapist and Rozene is her patient, a relationship that defines so much of the book. This is a book about the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” and what is and is not allowed when the expectations of Amira’s employers cross into the ethically dubious. Rozene is pregnant with her clone, and this is a project that goes not without opposition. This is a story about medical ethics, and who gets to decide what to do with whose body.

Related to that last part is a strong feminist undercurrent. Both Amira and Rozene are women who have been put at the mercy of organizations that care not a whit for them as people, but see them as means to an end that they had very little say in. Afifi very cleverly juxtaposes Westport and the cults as being both environments that have put the two central women under great stress and obligation in the service of something whose motives are questionable.

But this book is also a thriller. The plot moves quickly, and Afifi never spends more time describing anything than is necessary to keep the momentum up. This is a story of strong beliefs and dirty dealings, between cults and Westport and government agencies (Hadrian, one of their agents, turned out to be one of my favorite characters in the whole book). You visit Westport, but also the American Southwest, and go on a quick jaunt to a space station. My only regret in this regard is that we don’t see more of it.

The Sentient is nothing less than a triumph. Nadia Afifi is an author who any current science fiction reader should be watching out for; if her future work is as good as this novel is, she will doubtlessly be a titan of the century. This book is what twenty-first century science fiction will be and must be in a world that feels more and more like science fiction by the day: deeply moral, intellectually daring, and written like a lightning bolt. Afifi is an author that I will be following with great interest.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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