Archetype is set in a world in which fertility rates have dropped so low that fertile women are treated as property and sold as wives. Teenage girls are raised in wife training centers and the ones judged capable of bearing children are sold at age eighteen. It's into this world that Emma reawakes after an alleged accident with no memory, but with a mysterious voice in her head and vague dreams of another life. Her husband is there when she wakes and clearly loves her, but there's another man in her dreams, and she knows that one of them must be the man she loves and the other is her bitter enemy. She doesn't know which is which.
I have mixed feelings about this book, possibly because it invites comparison with The Handmaid's Tale. (Waters acknowledges that a scene she remembers of the handmaids in training in the movie version was an influence on this book, but that she only recently read the book after having written Archetype.) If I try to forget every other dystopia I've read, this book satisfies. Emma's development as she recovers her memory also lets the reader slowly into the light about how her world works, and her love for the husband who takes care of her while she also remembers a life with another man is believable and well executed.
In comparison with other dystopias, and especially The Handmaid's Tale, however, it falls short on the social commentary scale. It may be because of Emma's abridged memory, but although we are told that wives are the property of their husbands and must be branded because they are at risk of being stolen, we are shown very little oppression. Other than a couple of brief mentions about how pregnancy is not a choice and how birth control and abortion are both illegal, the day to day lives of the women we see doesn't seem to involve many negative ramifications. There is, of course, a secret horror to be revealed, but it appears to be a reasonably unimportant part of the system as a whole. It doesn't give the sense that Emma's daily life would be restricted at all if she weren't a patient. It's clear that she could not hold a job, but she paints and sells her paintings. Is the money they bring hers? Could she conduct business on her own? Does she even care if she has any control over money of her own? Would she want to hold a job if she were allowed to do so? Are there rules about where she can or can't go without her husband? Presumably adultery is illegal since men who buy wives to reproduce will want to be sure the children are their own, but are there any other rules about interaction between wives and men not their husbands?
Although the reproduction oriented rules of society immediately made my mind go to The Handmaid's Tale, I'm not sure that Archetype is about reproductive choice, or at least about the threat of increased legal restrictions on women exercising that choice. If that's the story Waters is trying to tell, then this result would be equivalent to writing a story about slavery and only showing slaves who worked skilled trades and had the opportunity to earn money and buy their freedom. The system would still be abhorrent, but the story would stop short of depicting the full horrors possible under it. But maybe Archetype is actually a social satire in the vein of The Stepford Wives, only with the SF elements visible all the way through, less about a systematic threat to take away women's control over their own bodies and more about how women can lose themselves to the interests of their husbands and their children, often while being complicit in it. If that's the case, then the fact that the premise is so close to The Handmaid's Tale is unfortunate in that it invites what can only be an extremely unfair comparison, but the story as it advances from there is much more effective.
I'm not sure I will really know how I feel about Archetype until after I read the second book, Prototype, which I have an ARC of but am going to try to read some books coming out sooner first to make sure I get to them before the release date. (Prototype is due out in July.) For now, the Overall Grade is B.
Archetype will be released on February 6.