Welcome to utopia gone very, very wrong. Readers may find themselves reluctant at first to dip into the harsh, what-if future of Steven Polansky’s cautionary novel The Bradbury Report. Yet the undertow of this grievous new world is powerful.
It is the late 21st century and replacement parts for human bodies are in good supply. By donating vials of their blood, Americans painlessly participate in a governmental program to create clones who are harvested for body parts when their owners — known as “originals” — have medical emergencies.
No transplants are available for those individuals who find the program reprehensible and refuse to participate. But their numbers are few. Most people sign up without considering the consequences and have no idea how or where their clones live.
Similar to fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, Polansky’s novel focuses on the mundanity of evil. Bad things happen when good people blind themselves to what is unconscionable. Polansky manages to impart this lesson without preaching.
The central character of the author’s dystopian fable is a widower and retired math teacher known as “Ray Bradbury,” a pseudonym given to him by his friend, Anna, who is a member of the anti-cloning resistance movement.
As with the renegade fireman of Fahrenheit 451, Ray is an anti-hero drawn into action by accident. Both awaken to the wrong they have done and how they can partially right it.
Polansky’s Ray is childless and has been in an emotional stupor for decades since his wife died in childbirth. He hasn’t seen Anna since college, when she was infatuated with him but he eloped with her best friend.
Now Anna needs Ray’s help to protect a clone who has inexplicably managed to escape a huge, top-secret reservation known as “the Clearances” and located somewhere in the Dakotas. The clone looks almost exactly like Ray did in his early twenties, because Ray is his original.
In The Bradbury Report, Polansky’s greatest achievement is the detailed and loving manner in which he imagines the clone’s emergence into selfhood.
Alan, as he has been named by the resistance, moves from a mute, robotic, sedated existence into a delayed childhood of picture books, pizza, hockey games and walks in the park with his surrogate parents Anna and Ray.
Parts of Alan’s development advance at digital speed, including his late-night obsession with T.V. pornography that morphs into self-disciplined avoidance of the genre when Anna shows dismay.
Alan develops emotional depth, including love as well as despair when absorbing answers to difficult questions about the reasons for his existence. As Alan grows, so does Ray. Amid all the sadness, hope prevails for the persistence of humankind’s better traits.