BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a post-apocalyptic dystopia, Anaxamander submits to Academy testing. Her topic: Adam Forde, an essential and controversial figure in their history.
PROS: Excellent back story and world building; never boring; beautifully constructed story; outstanding ending.
CONS: As short as the book is, life conspired to force the reading of it into several reading sessions which somewhat broke the thrust of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: Beckett has created a timeless, compassionate story that both engages and surprises the reader.
It’s hard to believe that science fiction has not yet overused the robot trope, but Bernard Beckett’s short novel Genesis shows us that the genre still has great robot-related stories left to tell. It doesn’t start out as a robot story, though. Instead, it’s a unique presentation of a post-apocalyptic dystopia that morphs into a philosophical discussion of what it means to be human.
The book is structured around an oral test being taken by Anaximander, who wishes to become a member of the elite Academy, the group that controls her secluded island society. As we come to learn through the first part of Anax’s exam, the time is the near future and the setting is an island that has protected its borders from the deadly plague that has infected the rest of the world. Society is strictly controlled by the Academy: women and men are segregated into separate camps; breeding is restricted; and its citizens are genetically proscribed at an early age to one of 4 social classes: laborer, soldier, technician, and philosopher. Anax’s topic of specialization is Adam Forde, an essential figure in their brief history. In later parts of Anax’s exam, we learn that Adam — imprisoned for showing compassion to an outsider who might be carrying the plague — is chosen to shape the development of an artificially intelligent robot named Art. Here is where the story turns philosophical, contemplating definitions of humanity and free will.
Credit goes to Beckett for creating a story that starts out interesting and never loses momentum – even as it shifts gears from world building (through intriguing info dumps which work surprisingly well in the narrative’s dialogue-driven prose) to philosophical discourse (between Adam and Art on the nature of humanity, as seen through holographic images that are part of Anax’s exam). Genesis is a book that’s hard to review because much of the enjoyment comes from plot twists that would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that the book is deceptively simple and surprisingly complex. At its most basic, it’s simply a story of one girl’s trials to become a constructive member of society. At another level are the obvious but perfectly pitched (read: not heavy-handed) parallels with religion and philosophy. By the end of the book, you realize the genius of its construction, the minute details that subtly serve as clues to the ultimate picture – all of it leaving the reader completely satisfied.
Packing so many entertaining elements into 150 pages is no small feat. To create such an outstanding conclusion was a happy bonus. What Beckett has created is a timeless, compassionate story that resonates, engages and surprises the reader.