'The Only Ones' Puts A Heartbreaking Spin On Dystopia
Carola Dibbell is a veteran music journalist, and it shows. In her debut novel The Only Ones — which may or may not be named after the cult '70s band — Dibbell writes rhythmically and lyrically about New York City's outer boroughs in the latter half of the 21st century, where life in American has been radically altered by waves of populace-decimating pandemics. The economy is a shambles. People subsist partly on a manufactured foodstuff called Process that's dropped into struggling neighborhoods. The streets of the city are hosed down regularly with industrial-strength antiseptic. Society clings together, but only barely.
In this fraught landscape, Inez Fardo — a 19-year-old "hardy" whose biology is resistant to the disease vectors — makes a discovery. The wealthy will pay her good money if she'll let them clone her. The catch? The rich will adopt her disease-resistant clones, thereby sparing themselves the cruelty of the high infant morality rate. Once the newborn versions of Inez emerge from their cloning tanks, she'll never see them again. When the would-be mother of one of those clones suddenly dies, Inez decides to risk everything by taking the baby, Ani, and raising her as a daughter.
Inez chronicles her own tale, and her voice is breathtaking. Jagged and jumbled, poetic and wise, her ongoing narrative reflects a piercing intelligence and a passion that has never been given a chance to flourish. But now, it can. When she learns of the process that could produce her clone, she doesn't flinch; instead, she wants to engage with it. The ethicality of genetic engineering — or "the life industry," as it's chillingly called — comes into play, as does religious fundamentalism, Big Pharma, and the current hot-button topic of vaccination. These ideas have tangible, tragic implication as Ani grows old enough to question Inez, the woman she thinks is her mother.
The nature of motherhood itself becomes The Only Ones' overriding theme, and it's where Dibbell shines the brightest. Inez and Ani settle into a semblance of a normal life, despite the secret that could destroy them both, and their relationship goes through all the standard stages: finding a good school, puberty, teenage rebellion. But it's underpinned by the tragic truth that only Inez knows. When Ani goes through a typical childhood phase of mimicking everything Inez says, it eerily drives home the point that the two of them share the exact same genetic material, which raises even bigger questions: How much are we products of our parents versus products of our environment? Or is the fault in thinking that we're products at all?
Throughout the book, Inez's funny, gritty, gutsy monologue dwells on certain phrases as if they were mantras or refrains of a song. One in particular stands out: "Still alive," she says to herself often, sometimes in disbelief, other times in steel-willed affirmation. For a book about an all-too-possible dystopia, The Only Ones bleeds tenderness, warmth, and a hard-won hope. Dibbell's lengthy career so far may have focused on music criticism, but she's delivered a debut novel on par with some of the best speculative fiction of the past 30 years; The Only Ones deserves to be shelved alongside Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, and P. D. James' The Children of Men. It's that good, and that important, and that heartbreakingly beautiful.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.