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BOOK REVIEW: The Genome by Sergei Lukyanenko

REVIEW SUMMARY: From the author of the famous Nightwatch series comes a futuristic thriller where genetic modifications are as freeing as they are enslaving.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After taking a young woman under his protection, Master Pilot Alex Romanov gets an offer he can’t refuse, and gets in way over his head.

PROS: Enjoyable characters; subtle world building; story was easy to get into; I got a huge chuckle out of the Detective.
CONS: Novel struggles with what it wants to be; ending felt very rushed.
BOTTOM LINE: If you enjoy multi-layered stories that balance well drawn and diverse characters with subtle social commentary, this is a novel for you.

Alex Romanov woke up dead broke and put back together. After a terrible accident that quite literally sliced him in half, he spent 5 months in the hospital, regrowing limbs and learning how to walk again. As a licensed master pilot, he can pretty much write his own paycheck once the hospital released him. Provided he’s on a planet that has a need for master pilots. Which currently, he isn’t. Never one to keep his life simple, Alex takes on the responsibility of helping a young woman through her genetic transformation. And when it comes right down to it, it’s not like he had a choice.

Thanks to genetic manipulation technologies, parents who can afford it will choose a specialization for their unborn children. The modifications take place in utero, and the child’s future is secured, perhaps as a doctor, or a pilot, or a detective, or a navigator, or a fighter, or any one of a million other occupational specializations. The unspecialized are known as “Naturals”, and are often seen as second class citizens by the “Speshes”. This is a world of haves and have-nots. The specialization transformation usually takes place after puberty, once your bone structure and psyche can handle the physical and psychological changes, and most children are prepped from a young age about their specialization. No one told fourteen year old Kim what to expect, and now she’s freaking out on Alex’s cheap motel bed. Alex would prefer to contact her family and send her home, but when Kim starts sharing her secrets, he agrees he’s safest with him. (I’d say Kim has a River Tam thing going on, but The Genome was published in Russia in 1999, three years before River sent coded messages to her brother)

At the moment he needs it most, a job he can’t refuse lands in Alex’s lap. A passenger transport, the Mirror, is in need of a captain who is also a Master Pilot. If Alex can hire a crew in the next 48 hours, the ship (and more importantly, the paycheck) is his. There’s a whole chunk of the book where he is sitting in a bar going through a time honored ritual of making his crew needs known and interviewing possible crew members. You’d think a scene like this would be boring, but it was actually quite the opposite, and sets the scene for the reader to watch for other recognizable references. He ends up with quite the motley crew, with includes Janet Ruella the executioner-spesh turned physician from the militarized and quarantined planet of Eben; Navigator Puck Generalov who manages to do the complicated calculations even though he is a natural; Xang Morrison, spaceborn master pilot whose been having trouble finding work; and the young engineer Paul Lourier. Through some very sly maneuvering, Alex even finds a way to get Kim signed up as part of the crew.

The beginning of The Genome hops along at a good pace and pulls the reader in right away, but there are very few hints as to where the story is going. Once Alex and his crew get settled on the ship and get to know each other a bit, he and Janet bond over a parental feeling towards Kim, who has sexually imprinted onto Alex. Yes, you read that right. Alex knows that it isn’t unusual for a spesh to bond with the first person they see after their transformation, but Kim’s imprinting is unusual. And one of these days, Alex is going to have to explain to her that even if he has sex with her, he will not and cannot return her love. It gives the first half the book a bit of a Lolita vibe, which I wasn’t quite sure how to process. As the plot progressed I found myself waffling as to which one of them was taking advantage of the other.

Once they get settled on their ship and receive the mission orders from their new client, this might be the easiest transgalactic trip of their life — provided they can tolerate their unsavory alien passengers. When one of the passengers is brutally murdered, the plot abruptly changes to that of Orient Express-style murder mystery taking place in the shadow of interstellar war. I got a huge chuckle out of the Detective’s identities and his crime solving style, but to tell you more would spoil one of the most entertaining parts of the book.

Plot wise, there is a lot happening in The Genome, and the novel seemed to struggle with deciding what it wanted to be. Is it a sex romp? A political thriller? A story of a mad scientist getting his revenge? Social commentary on how genetic manipulation towards creating superhumans enslaves more than it frees? Meandering through all of this is Kim’s dangerous secret, and Alex’s attempts to free both of them. With that being only about half of what’s going on I’m happy to report that Lukyanenko wrote both a prequel (Dances On the Snow) and a sequel (Cripples) to The Genome, so I have hopes that those two novels clean up some of the loose ends left in this one. I look forward to those novels being translated.

It was a lot to wrap my head around, made easier by the newspaperman stylings of Lukyanenko, who uses the fewest words possible to divulge an entire future’s worth of information, often conveying characterization via someone’s reaction to what’s happening around them. As much as I enjoyed the characters and their subtle interactions, what I most appreciated about The Genome is the futuristic world Lukyankenko presents and the dynamic between the Speshes and the Naturals. Both sides are unbearably jealous of the other, and there is a subtle commentary regarding if specialization is simply a form of social slavery. If a community knows they will need street sweepers or dentists or soldiers, they simply make those occupations the most attractive (affordable) for expectant parents to choose. The child is never given a choice, the decision and investment was made nine months before they were born. Alex might be able to psychologically bond with his ship, but there are other things that have been permanently removed from his psyche, emotions he would like to experience.

Hovering above the love triangles, the prejudices ingrained in their society, the political intrigues, the well-timed and highly entertaining pop culture references, this is a story about Alex Romanov taking advantage of his genetic enslavement to break his own chains.  If you enjoy well paced and multi-layered futuristic thrillers that touch on social commentary, humor, a mystery in which someone (or more than one person!) is lying, and subtlety presented world building, you’ll enjoy The Genome.

I did a little bit of research to learn more about the context in which The Genome was written, and learned that (a) I missed a number of references, (b) some of the spelling of characters’ names were changed slightly in the translation, and (c) that the encoded message appears to have gotten lost in translation.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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