Elysia is created in a laboratory, born as a sixteen-year-old girl, an empty vessel with no life experience to draw from. She is a Beta, an experimental model of a teenage clone. She was replicated from another teenage girl, who had to die in order for Elysia to exist.
Elysia’s purpose is to serve the inhabitants of Demesne, an island paradise for the wealthiest people on earth. Everything about Demesne is bioengineered for perfection. Even the air induces a strange, euphoric high, which only the island’s workers–soulless clones like Elysia–are immune to.
At first, Elysia’s life is idyllic and pampered. But she soon sees that Demesne’s human residents, who should want for nothing, yearn. But for what, exactly? She also comes to realize that beneath the island’s flawless exterior, there is an under-current of discontent among Demesne’s worker clones. She knows she is soulless and cannot feel and should not care–so why are overpowering sensations cloud-ing Elysia’s mind?
If anyone discovers that Elysia isn’t the unfeeling clone she must pretend to be, she will suffer a fate too terrible to imagine. When her one chance at happi-ness is ripped away with breathtaking cruelty, emotions she’s always had but never understood are unleashed. As rage, terror, and desire threaten to overwhelm her, Elysia must find the will to survive.
The cover of this book is so amazingly beautiful that I spent a few minutes being creepy and caressing it. The satin finish of it complements the colours and the model is so incredibly beautiful and the cover merges so very fantastically with the content in the novel. I went into this book knowing that it was about clones and that’s about it. I have read other books by Cohn and liked them so I was reasonably confident that I would appreciate the writing if not love the story. I didn’t start the novel and love it immediately. No – well okay, let me restart this review so I don’t sound so fractured.
In Beta Rachel Cohn presents readers with a utopian society existing on an island engineered to be paradise on earth. From the rejuvenating waters of the sea immediately surrounding the island to the fresh and pure air pumped in the atmosphere to the aesthetically pleasing clones manufactured to serve humans in all capacities. Our protagonist, Elysia, is one of these clones but she’s a Beta, that is, one of the first teen clones ever manufactured. Now, I do not know much about science but I felt that the explanation and the process of clone-making is thought out but obfuscated from the readers for reasons that become clear at the end. Cohn does a remarkable job in world building though and her world actually makes sense – it could have been a dystopian setting – maybe it is but somehow, I doubt it. The entire novel takes place on Demesne, the human-engineered paradise, with brief mentions of other cities that, waterlogged though they may be, still exist.
There are two major reasons I loved this book. The first one is Elysia. At the beginning, she is more machine than human and I was so impressed by Cohn’s ability to successfully portray a being who is a girl but not a girl. It is way more difficult to do than it seems. There is a definite growth in Elysia as the book grows and you can almost see her begin to cohere into something, someone, more than what (and who) she is created to be. Her questions are endless as she seeks to learn more about this world she has emerged in, as she gradually realizes the concept of personal freedom, of owning herself rather than being owned by someone else. She is not a shade of the person from whom she was cloned, she is her own person and Elysia seeks to prove that once and again, in her thoughts and her actions. She takes what little agency she has and she utilizes it. She avenges herself and she saves herself. She is not ashamed of her sexuality and she is not apologetic of her desires. For a being who was born perfect, she is charmingly flawed but at the same time, there is this sense of innocence about her that reminds you that no matter what she behaves or looks like, she is not human. She is something other.
“What’s a slut?” I ask him.
“A girl who puts out too easily.”
“Puts out what?” I imagine Greer putting put dinner and don’t understand what Ivan wouldn’t like about that.
“Puts out, you know…” His face, already beet red from our run, turns a darker scarlet. “Sex.”
I wonder where Greer puts the sex out. (pg. 59)
The second reason I really liked this novel is the plot. Oftentimes, I can predict what’s going to happen next but this was definitely not the case with Beta. I won’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away but I would definitely love to discuss the book with you once you’re done because Cohn makes some brave narrative decisions that leave me curious as to where the story is going to go. The book ends in a cliffhanger and while I am a bit nonplussed by that (as opposed to being annoyed), I am more than curious to know what happens next. Because Cohn takes what I thought I knew about the world, the clones and the humans and turns it upside down so all I have are questions and no second book to answer them. It’s a good cliffhanger though. I liked it.
The novel deals with themes of greed, rampant materialism and rigid class system. It asks the reader what it means to be human and asks whether you have to be born and created in a womb to be human. It asks how you can quantify souls and how you can say something that has never even been seen or measured can be said to exist in one person and not in another. Demesne could easily exist in the world. Highly exclusive, highly illegal and highly coveted – the island where just breathing makes a person feel better is perhaps the ultimate vacation destination of the future. What are the implications of a society so bent towards leisure and pleasure that they would manufacture humans to be little more than slaves – no worse than slaves?
I could go on and on about this book – talk about the relationships, the power dynamics and so much more. But I think it would be more fun for you to go and find out for yourself how awesome this book is. Strongly recommended.