Usually I read a book before watching a film or television adaptation but every once in a while there’s a great book written about a movie or television series. As a fan of Orphan Black, I’m still in mild denial that the show is going to be starting its fifth and final season in a few short months. A provocative series about the lives of a series of clones, Orphan Black gives its fans plenty to talk about. Gregory E. Pence, a professor at UAB and an expert in cloning and bioethics, has compiled quite a few talking points in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black. Delving into the science and history of cloning, he uses Orphan Black, its plots, and characters to help illustrate concepts and bring debates to life in ways that make it easier for readers (and viewers) to relate to and understand.
Pence begins the book by looking at the ways clones have been depicted in science fiction and literature, searching for the root of many of society’s assumptions about human cloning and the dangers it poses. He examines the origins of a variety of medical advancements that preceded the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep and the reactions from various sectors to those advancements. Using the science behind cloning and similar technologies, Pence critiques the plot and execution of Orphan Black in its depiction of clones. Some of the debates examined, such as nature versus nurture, will be more familiar to readers than others. Finally, Pence ends the book by throwing out a few areas of interest that the show and its writers could explore in the future.
Published in March of 2016, Pence’s book only addresses the first three seasons of Orphan Black. It is important to have seen the show if you’re going to read the book. At the same time, because the book was published before season four aired, some of the questions, speculation, and concerns are no longer relevant—or have proven quite relevant—to the show.
Among the chapters I found most interesting was the chapter examining the clones and their sexual identities. The show’s depiction of the clones and their array of sexual identities has drawn both praise and criticism for a variety of reasons; it’s amazing in terms of its representation and inclusion but there are also those who worry about what their various sexual identities says about a prominent theory that sexuality is tied to a person’s genetics. If the clones are genetically identical, how is it possible for them to have varying sexual identities?
A lot of Pence’s emphasis throughout is how many of the fears regarding human cloning are tied to societal prejudices. Fears of discrimination against clones; fears of medical advancements like cloning being used by the privileged and the wealthy to increase their wealth and privilege; fears of expectations being imposed on clones and impacting their personhood and free will. What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club proves to be a valuable text for furthering the discussions many fans of Orphan Black are already having and a useful tool for helping to make abstract (and occasionally dull) discussions about bioethics and philosophy more accessible. It’s certainly an intriguing book to read in today’s political climate (and keeping in mind it was published just one year ago).