In A Word, Voice: The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
by Jenna Leigh Evans
When you’ve seen one apocalypse, you’ve seen them all: there’s some real bad news, plus enough survivors left to tell the tale. What distinguishes a post-apocalyptic story, then, is who is doing the telling, and how. In a word, voice. In this regard, Carola Dibbell’s The Only One shines.
Our heroine is one of the handfuls that remain healthy after a series of pandemics decimate the global population. Her name is Inez, but the story opens with her telling us her sobriquet, I. “That’s what they call me. I’m lucky they call me anything,” she confides. She might as well be saying, Call me Ishmael. Anonymous yet fiercely individual, a castaway with little to her name except a hell of a story, she was found as an infant, the only one alive on a doomed bus.
Inez is a “hardy,” a genetic mutation capable of surviving exposure to disease, and as such has the most valuable DNA in the world. Frequently, in fiction, such mutations are paragons of purity. Inez, though, is an uneducated young hooker from Queens, and in this way, not unique in either her world or ours. She’s sullied, vulnerable, selling her hair, blood, and urine as well as donating her eggs for cash (as anyone who’s been down to their last fifty cents can tell you, this is hardly science fiction). This person, then, is the world’s great hope; but the fact that her genes could create a master race confers no special status on her whatsoever. If this comes as a surprise, what part of hooker from Queens don’t you understand?
It’s her DNA that has her entangled with a ramshackle cadre of for-hire geneticists who’ve promised a client mad with grief over the death of her children that they can clone Inez, creating adoptive children resistant to plague. Human cloning is illegal, though, and Inez is to undergo extraordinarily dangerous physical trials — with no legal protection, in order to produce progeny she’ll have no rights to It’s typical of Dibbell’s wry, socially-conscious humor that when Inez wants a guarantee that she’ll be paid, the wealthy, liberal client cries in disgust, “Why do you do this? Why do you treat your life as something that can be bought and sold?”
The client changes her mind, leaving Inez ill equipped to raise the clone, a girl who genetically shares the distinction and burden of being another “only one.” She returns to Queens, now a single mother living in the projects and vying for scarce resources. “Let me say a little about quarantine, which maybe you heard of or even went in once,” she says, in the pitch-perfect cadences of the outer boroughs. “…When everyone is finished dying, wait two more weeks. Then who is left could go. Now all you have to do is stay alive the regular way, and there is smoke and dust and anti-Patho spray, and they put you on trucks to some kind of Center but the trucks are commandeered and you are on Union Turnpike, which is a mess. Rickshaws, bikes, more trucks, cops in bubble suits, and everywhere, crowds on foot, running and shoving. You want food? Get on a line. Want shelter? Get on a line.” This is not exactly a world apart from ours.
Inez proves to be a devoted mother, despite her confusion about her daughter, Ani, being a clone — the media is hysterical with “clone panic,” horror stories meant to whip up revulsion on ethical grounds. Is it me or not me? she asks herself, watching Ani play. It’s not a farfetched question, as anyone with an organ donor’s heart now beating in their own chest can attest. “Maybe something is wrong with it. Maybe it is a crime against nature. But I wished we weren’t the only ones,” she concludes.
Dauntless, loving, Inez copes with the staggering bureaucracy of schools, arguing with teachers about her kid being dubbed “oppositional,” schlepping across town to work three jobs to secure Ani the best possible future. Pandemics aside, domed communities and rickshaws on the turnpike aside — all the story’s colorful dystopian backdrop aside — this is the central irony at the heart of Dibbell’s novel: Inez is far from being the only one.
by Carola Dibbell