Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Genesis

Genesis by Bernard Beckett
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's review
May 20, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: dystopian, ya, sci-fi, 2012, favourite, cover-love
Recommended to Shannon (Giraffe Days) by: Bree T
Read in June, 2012 — I own a copy

There are a few rare books - like The Chrysalids - where I've said in my review: If there's one book you should definitely read this year, it's this one. That's my strongest, most enthusiastic endorsement, brimming with excitement and the need to share a piece of genius with as many people as possible, and it's very much the case for Beckett's Genesis.

Fourteen-year-old Anaximander has been studying hard for several years with her tutor, Pericles, for her examination to get into the prestigious Academy, to be one of those who help guide the nation. For her exam, she has focused on her most prominent interest: Adam Forde, a rebel and a hero from an age long gone, in 2075 when the country was a Plato's republic of philosopher-rulers, soldiers, technicians and labourers, the population divided at birth into rigid class lines, all after closing its borders - literally - to the rest of the world as the only place free of the plague that decimated other countries in the 2050s.

Her exam is four hours long, and the three stone-faced examiners are intimidating and exacting. But Anax is well prepared, and she knows her subject matter so well, that she's modestly confident.

Over the course of the exam, we learn through their questions and answers how the new republic was established, and what Adam Forde's role in it was. But with every detail we learn, more and more questions arise, because we, the readers, lack Anax's context, her knowledge of the present. Is it the same country? Is this society still in place or have things changed? We begin with zero knowledge, and must build an understanding of this futuristic world bit by bit. Or rather, we think we know, and we work on our defaults, picturing and understanding things in the only way we can, only to have these details constantly confounded, dismantled, leaving us to scrabble around for a new understanding to fit the new knowledge, upon which we build more - like a house of cards, there is every danger that a foundation card will collapse and bring the whole lot down. This is not a work of "fluff" - it is easy to read but it is not a lazy read. You the reader will be actively involved, every step of the way, in putting this story together. And I love that.

There are plenty of times where I'm happy to just sit back and let a story tell itself, to let it reveal itself at its own pace and in its own words. But always I want to participate in the story at some level: I can't read and not think. Genesis is the antithesis of the thinking novel. It will make you think, yes, but it will also make you involved, make you participate. You are an active reader, and that's important because it's a deeply philosophical story that's intensely thought-provoking and mentally absorbing, and the one thing missing from the experience for me is a group discussion at the end of it. (This novel would be perfect for high school English students.)

For such a short novel, there is a LOT going on here, and it's a very clever, unique and original story. Aside from creating a futuristic, post-apocalyptic dystopian society (home of Adam Forde), as well as sketching in Anax's own world (which we're unsure, for most the book, of the exact connection or why Forde is seen as a hero), it also delves into philosophy - especially the nature of being, but also the idea of an ideal society - and history. As a history (and English) teacher, I love a work of fiction that gets across how nuanced history is, how unfixed it is. Likewise, I get so angry when I read a book, especially a YA novel, or watch a movie or TV show that, simply out of laziness perhaps, perpetuates the stereotype of the bad History class and teacher, where students are lectured endlessly about famous events and expected to memorise dates and names. That is not what history is about at all! If you've ever had a secondary school teacher who did that, you deserve an apology. Not to mention that it puts people off history, the subject, and gives them the idea that's its boring and even alienating. Such a shame.

But I digress. The society that Adam Forde grew up in is indeed based on Plato's Republic - and funnily enough was set up by a guy (a rich businessman) named Plato, though whether he assumed this name in sheer ironic arrogance is up to the reader to infer. I never did finish that book, but I read over half, enough to recognise the inspiration. And like with any utopian society, it quickly becomes a dystopia.

The problem facing the Council of Philosophers was inevitable. In its beginnings, The Republic had planted the seeds of its own destruction. Plato's first dictum, which opens The Republican Charter, reads as follows:

It is only in the State that the People may find their full expression. For the people are the State, and the State is the People.

The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth.

The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.

The founders believed that by removing the child from the family, and the partners from each other, they could break down the usual loyalties, and replace them with loyalty towards the state. But there were many unintended effects. The people were forced to live in large single sex communes. They ate, played, slept and worked together and they talked to one another. The Republic had established an incubator for new ideas. Although The Republic could control the information pumped into the communes, it could not control the way information changed shape inside the heads of the women and men that it visited. [pp65-6]

With the threat of the plague outside its mighty fence and over the ocean receding, The Republic sought to create a new threat, and used Adam Forde to do it. It didn't work, and for his reduced sentence he is used instead in a new robot project: to work with Art, an android that thinks and develops its own mind through interacting with others. Having spent all its time so far with the one Philosopher who designed it, its creator decided to use Adam as Art's new full-time companion.

From there we get to what the book is ostensibly all about: the question of what makes a human, a human, and whether a robot can ever be treated equally, with a soul. The conversations - arguments I should say - between Adam and Art are the real meat of Genesis, though certainly not the only part of the book that makes you think. The one flaw in it is the connection between The Republic and the drive to build a real working robot, or android. I don't know whether I somehow missed it or if indeed it wasn't fully explained, but I wasn't sure where this ambition came from or what it had to do with The Republic. But it's a small side issue.

In western culture, there has long been a philosophical debate about artificial intelligence, resulting in many famous movies and books. You'd think that after so much discourse on the topic, there wouldn't be anything more to add - but in fact, since there's no answer or solution to the possible ethical dilemma, there is endless room for musing. Beckett would have to have written one of the most original and hard-hitting takes on the matter in the last, oh I don't know, twenty years? There have been some fantasy novels come out in the last few years that also explore, or make use of, this subject-matter (e.g. The Windup Girl, The Alchemy of Stone), but nothing like this. However, if you enjoyed this, or you're interested in the topic, I absolutely have to recommend I, Robot by Isaac Asimov - it's really, really good.

There is much that is insightful in this novel, and going back to the concept of ideas, I want to leave you with this quote from Art, speaking to Adam, in his argument as to why he's just as, if not more so, alive as Adam:

'You people pride yourselves on creating the world of Ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Idea enters the brain from outside. It rearranges the furniture to make it more to its liking. It finds other Ideas already in residence, and picks fights or forms alliances. The alliances build new structures, to defend themselves against intruders. And then, whenever the opportunity arises, the Idea sends out its shock troops in search of new brains to infect. The successful Idea travels from mind to mind, claiming new territory, mutating as it goes. It's a jungle out there, Adam. Many ideas are lost. Only the strongest survive.

You take pride in your Ideas, as if they are products, but they are parasites. Why imagine evolution could only be applied to the physical? Evolution has no respect for the medium. Which came first, the mind or the Idea of the mind? Have you never wondered that before? They arrived together. The mind is an Idea. That's the lesson to be learned, but I fear it is beyond you. It is your weakness as a person to see yourself as the centre.' [pp121-2]

In the end - and without giving anything away - we find that Anax's society has solved the problem that faced The Republic, and it is sad, truly sad. Leaving us with what is not said, an Idea of what makes us human, or what makes humans different, if not better. Beckett cleverly reveals a truth without directly saying a single word - the answer to Art and Adam's debate is the very ending of the book. Genesis is pure genius, in that regard.

At the end, though, I was left with some unanswered questions - questions that weren't answered probably because they weren't relevant, and wouldn't have fit into Anax's exam. I still wonder, like: what happened to Eve? And what is the state of the rest of the world, now? If such details could have been incorporated, it would have solidified the world-building even more.

On a final note, be careful what reviews you read. At a glance, I can say that there are some that give away too much, including the twist ending - yes, there is a twist, I knew that going in so I will pass that much along; it was ever-present in my mind and I had several theories, one of which was the true one, but I didn't get too distracted figuring it out, and the real ending was the real surprise for me. I first heard of this book through Bree (All the Books I Can Read), and I have to really thank her for her great review, which led me to read this terrific book.

Go on, get it, read it, what are you waiting for?
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I wish I had a brain like yours or Mr. Beckett's so I could comprehend it better. Great review! :)

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