“Nine Lives” takes place on a remote planet known as Libra. Stationed on Libra are two workers, named Martin and Pugh, whose mission is to man the outpost and search for mining deposits. The planet itself is arid, barren, and earthquake-prone with gaseous chasms that span its surface. The historical context for their situation is given in small pieces throughout the story, and it is revealed that the events of this story take place far into the future, at a time following a series of great wars and famines on Earth that have obliterated the majority of the world’s population and changed the way that global politics function.
National governments no longer exist and many countries have been wiped from the face of the Earth Martin works as the base’s technician and cartographer, and Pugh serves as the base commander and geologist. The two send infrequent reports back to Earth, to an organization known as The Exploitation Corps’, with recommendations for new excavation sites and requests for additional support. Though they are kept busy with their work, both express a sense of boredom and a touch of loneliness as they wait for new workers to arrive.
Their desire for additional support is answered in the form of ten clones, sometimes referred to as a ‘tenclone’, known collectively as John Chow, after the man whose genetic material was sampled to create them. The tenclone is comprised of an equal number of males and females, and they distinguish themselves from each other by having distinct middle initials (i.e. John A. Chow, John K. Chow, etc.). The clones have a perfect symbiotic relationship with each other. Together their cognitive abilities and problem solving skills far surpass those of an individual person, or even a small team of singletons working together.
In addition to their efficient work skills, they also provide social support for each other. The clones are capable of finishing each other’s sentences to the point where Martin and Pugh begin to question whether the clones actually have some system of shared cognition, although the clones deny having this ability. They talk amongst themselves and even provide sexual gratification to one another. The clones’ behavior indicates that they are unconcerned about social mores regarding incest or do not consider their sexual activity incestuous.
To the clones, their self-sustaining almost ritualistic behaviors are the norm, but Martin and Pugh both express feelings of exclusion that stem from watching the tenclone’s closed group dynamic. Though at first the clones are viewed as interesting – almost entertaining – to Martin and Pugh, their presence begins to annoy Libra’s original research crew. One day, the clones go out on an exploratory mission to a mining site discovered by Martin. While they are out, Martin and Pugh discuss the clones, their behavior, their existence, and the circumstances on Earth, which led to the cloning program being used as a way to bolster the human population.
An earthquake occurs and when hours go by without contact from the clones, both Martin and Pugh become concerned and embark in search of them. What they find is one male clone, barely alive, and the lifeless body of one female clone. Once they arrive back at the base, the remaining clone actually dies nine times, seemingly reenacting the deaths of each of his lost companions. Once stable, the live clone, John K. Chow, called ‘Kaph’, wrestles with depression stemming from being alone for the first time in his life.
He wrestles with his individuality and his existence apart from the rest of the clone collective. Though Martin and Pugh try to make him feel like a part of their group, Kaph resists, because of lingering sadness over his loss. One day, while Martin is out working, another seismic event occurs. Pugh selflessly risks his own life to save Martin’s, and when Kaph witnesses this, he receives his first true lesson on relationships, outside of his experience as a part of the collective. The tale ends as the base receives a second shipment of workers, a twelveclone, to replace the lost workers.
This story is centered on the themes of individualism and the importance of social connection. In a way, this tale is split between a challenge and a defense of the idea of individualism. Though Martin and Pugh are an effective team, their combined efficacy is initially shown to be less than that of the clone collective. The clones’ perfect symbiosis is, in the opinion of Martin and Pugh, something enviable.
Pugh’s initial opinion is that, “a clone might indeed be the first truly stable, self-reliant human being. Once adult it would need nobody’s help. It would be sufficient to itself physically, sexually, emotionally, [and] intellectually” (38). The clones are self-sustaining and function best when together. They fulfill each other’s social and emotional needs, while providing a constant sounding board for new ideas.
The idea of collectivism over individuality seems to reflect the social mores of their time. This is reflected in the discussions between Martin and Pugh of the events that took place on Earth that led to the start of the cloning initiative. Throughout the tale, Le Guin refers back to the people who died on Earth during the famines and wars with a clinical sort of detachment. For example, when Martin and Pugh talk about the ruin of Ireland, they are dispassionate and even go so far as to lay blame upon the Irish for not taking the appropriate population control measures to ensure their survival. In Pugh’s words, “[There are] no more Irish. A couple thousand in the entire island, the last I knew. They didn’t go in for birth control, you know, so the food ran out. By the Third Famine there were no Irish left at all but the priesthood, and they [were] all celibate, or nearly all” (39). The idea of the value of the whole over the value of individuals is also evident when Martin and Pugh explain the choices that led to the decision to launching the cloning initiative. The rationale given for pursuing cloning is that the clones are a valuable means to an end. Rather than focusing on the clones’ quality of life, they emphasize the clones’ value as workers and their worth to society as a functioning group. Though the unity of the clones is an asset, it is also a serious liability.
The connection between the clones ultimately breed the fear of being separated from the whole, and this fear leads each clone to make illogical decisions when the accident occurs. The fear of existing as singular beings leads each clone to follow the rest into a mine of hazardous wreckage, which kills nine of the ten clones. When the remaining clone is forced to live apart from his siblings – for a lack of a better word – the extent of the problems with their collectivism becomes more apparent. Kaph’s instability and depression following the accident illustrate, in part, that though collectivism has its uses, it is important for people to be able to exist as singular individuals so that their understanding of their place in society is not entirely dependent on their relationships with others.
That being said, it is precisely this independence that makes collaboration and caring relationships between individuals all the more meaningful. This is seen with the relationship between Martin and Pugh towards the end of the story, when Pugh risks his own life to save Martin – not out of the fear of being alone – but because of his genuine feelings of care, concern, and even love for Martin.