Book review: The Other Olivia, Tamara M Bailey

A tightly constructed sci-fi of international proportions, influenced by the Canadian series Orphan Black and The Matrix but set in Western Australia.

The Other Olivia by Tamara M Bailey cannot easily be ascribed to one genre. By Bailey’s own testimony it is science fiction – true without a doubt – but it also seethes with mystery, the energy of a thriller, the detail of a detective tale, and the warmth and juiciness of a quality romance.

A global tech corporation has created a simulation of the world by mapping the consciousnesses of consenting participants. This collective mindscape initially resembles ‘our’ world, as it was known to the participants at the time of the mapping. However, as the simulation world, called Eidolon, benefits from adopting green technologies, it evolves along its own path.

The corporation’s objective is to prove that these technologies could save ‘our’ planet. Everything must be legally watertight. And because everything mapped by the participants, including the versions of themselves and any ‘anomalies’ they produce, belongs to them, their consent must be obtained before anything can be reprogrammed or experimented on. The anomaly that belongs to the protagonist is the catalyst for significant conflict.

The Other Olivia was originally conceived as a fantasy and, while it was recrafted as a sci-fi, the fantasy world-building that Bailey did has paid off. The ‘real world’ setting reflects the feel and features of Perth landscapes, but Eidolon also exists as a distinct and compelling reality, and this makes readers want to root for it. It resembles our world, and its citizens share our human condition, but it also feels limitless in its capacity to evolve as a world anew. Regardless of their origins, the citizens of Eidolon’s inherited past is a key theme explored in The Other Olivia.

We first meet Olivia Alexander (née Sharp) in the prologue, BASE jumping into a gorge with her best friend. But when Chapter One begins, Olivia is not the same bold, foolhardy person, but a timid, pampered, kept woman who met her husband (to be) when he caused the car accident that broke her spine.

This same paternalistic desire to keep people/things safe is also seen with the hold that Nera Blake (Eidolon’s creator) tries to retain on Eidolon. Her motivations are commendable, but they aren’t selfless. She wants to protect its people, while also remaining connected to them. How can Eidolon’s citizens be made to ‘live at (her) mercy’?

Themes such as the right to one’s autonomy are dealt with at every turn and twist, and with every character’s arc, from a teenage girl, railing against the secrets allegedly keeping her safe, to every Eidolon citizen with their real identities and futures, who are perceived as mere data. Bailey’s crafting of characters is a huge feat, especially given there are (almost) two versions of each one of them.

To Olivia, Livy (Eidolon’s version of her) represents the person she could be once again, as well as become. But Livy also exists in her own right. She is a living, breathing being, who made different choices from Olivia, and who must confront her own limitations to save her loved ones – for one thing, the reality in which she lives is a simulation.

The Other Olivia brings readers up close and personal to climate activists, cult leaders, assassins and masterminds – those committed to saving the world by doing whatever it takes and those whose ethics and open-mindedness allows them to properly acknowledge where and how life exists.

Read: Dance review: PIECES 2022

The tagline on the cover reads ‘life will find a way’, and this is fitting. Bailey’s novel is a story of hope and endurance. However, I think its message is less that life will find a way, and more that it is vital life is supported and allowed to run along its own course. Standing aside, letting go and ‘coming into your own’ are complex and personal triumphs at the best of times, but for the characters in The Other Olivia facing life-threatening emergencies also happens to be ethically fraught. How would you negotiate from these positions, and what would hold you back? Read The Other Olivia and it will certainly get you thinking.

The Other Olivia, Tamara M Bailey
Publisher: Clan Destine Press
ISBN: 9780645316742
Pages: 387pp
Publication Date: November 2022
RRP: $32.95

Megan Payne is a writer and dancer based on Wurundjeri Land. They study Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University, and are an associate editor with The Suburban Review.