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Genetopia
Keith Brooke
Pyr, 303 pages

Genetopia
Keith Brooke
Keith Brooke was born 1966. He grew up in Harwich, an east coast port in Essex, England. He attended university in Norwich to study ecology and ended up studying environmental politics, meteorology, economics, anthropology, planning, and social sciences. In addtion to writing SF and fantasy, he runs the Infinity Plus website which reprints science fiction and fantasy along with some original work.

Keith Brooke Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Keith Brooke
Nick Gifford Website
SF Site Excerpt: Genetopia
SF Site Interview: Keith Brooke
SF Site Review: Infinity Plus One
SF Site Review: Parallax View

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

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In the distant future, the world is saturated in "changing vectors," bio- and nano-technological agents that alter those who come into contact with them in unpredictable ways. The clans of "True" humanity guard the purity of their genes jealously: babies showing signs of being affected are left out to die from exposure, and the purebreds want nothing to do with "Lost" humans. But there's a thriving slave trade in "mutts," individuals so drastically transformed that they are regarded as animals; though, having said that, any hint of difference can lead to someone being branded a mutt, as our protagonist discovers.

Young Flint is a member of the Trecosi clan, famed for their skills in genetic manipulation. During a clan gathering to mark the "Crafting" of some new mutts, his sister Amber goes missing. After consulting Trecosann's Oracle (a biological AI), and realizing he has no good reason to stay, Flint sets out to look for Amber. Along the way, he falls in with the religious Riverwalkers, and takes part in a "purge" to quash a rebellion led by a mutt who has seemingly shaken off his inbred subservience to humans. Meanwhile, Amber is on her own journey -- and neither of them will reach the end unchanged.

Keith Brooke's Genetopia is a fascinating creation. Though unquestionably a work of science fiction, it is set at a point in the future where the boundaries between SF and fantasy blur; and the novel has features of both: the heightened sense of reality common to the best fantasy, coupled with the inherent plausibility of the best SF. The world itself is as hazy as one would expect: Flint doesn't know his geography and, apart from a brief reference to what the Riverwalkers call "the Fall," the details of this world's history are kept under wraps. But there's also a striking clarity to Brooke's work: whereas in, say, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, readers have to work constantly to decipher the world (and, indeed, this leads to many of Wolfe's best effects), once we understand the basic parameters of Genetopia, Brooke's novel is readily comprehensible. We don't need to know precisely how his future came to be, because we understand the broad principles, and that is enough. And it's the clarity of his telling that enables the author to explore most effectively his main theme: change.

We may all be wary of change, but it's usually change of a rather abstract form. In Genetopia, however, it is much more concrete: if a slight infection, or even just falling in the wrong river, could turn you into who-knows-what, isn't it understandable if people are afraid? But even the worst change may benefit someone else (a slave trader, say); and maybe, just maybe, a change might give you an advantage. So, do you hide away or take a risk? This is the key question Brooke's novel poses to Flint -- and, by extension, to us. And the question is rendered all the more powerful by being (literally) made flesh.

Genetopia also examines the question of what makes us human. The True clans have very definite ideas about who (or what) is and isn't human, and they don't lead to comfortable reading (as well they shouldn't!), particularly the depictions of the mutt slaves and the pidgin language of "Mutter." The Lost have rather different ideas, as one tells Flint: "Your kind think we are damaged, but we are not: it is the True who are stunted in their understanding of what it is to be human... To be human is to be fluid, unfixed. Open to change." And it's this view for which Brooke ultimately argues.

Yet he also recognizes that change is a double-edged sword. There's a certain irony in the book's title, because it implies a kind of utopia, but a utopia for whom? Brooke's future does not seem the perfect world for anyone in the novel -- which, I suspect, is the point. Interestingly, despite the profound changes human technologies have wrought on his world, the author does not argue explicitly against (or in favour of) them: expect change, he seems to say, for it will happen whatever we choose to do. Perhaps Flint's world is a utopia simply because it's there, and all the other possible worlds aren't.

In the midst of all these issues there is, of course, a story: the story of Flint's search for his sister, and his coming of age, which amount to the same thing. The boy's journey may be powered more by circumstance than by himself, but that's what happens when you search through unfamiliar terrain. The novel may be oddly constructed, with Flint's tale interrupted by a few chapters told from the viewpoint of other characters; but they tell us what has been happening to Amber, and it is entirely appropriate that the full story of Genetopia should be larger than Flint's alone. And, despite the potentially heavy subject matter, the book never feels like a lecture -- except, possibly, towards the end, when Flint is told the lesson he must learn, instead of being shown it, as perhaps he should have been. But that's a minor gripe, because for the most part, Brooke integrates story and message in an engaging yet hard-hitting fashion -- and perhaps we all need to be told once in a while.

One of the hardest things to do in life is to look change in the eye without flinching. Keith Brooke's superb novel is an invitation to do so; and it's an invitation you should accept.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.


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