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Genesis
Bernard Beckett
Harcourt, 150 pages

Genesis
Bernard Beckett
Bernard Beckett, born in 1967, is a high school teacher based in Wellington, New Zealand, where he teaches drama, mathematics, and English. Genesis was written while he was on a Royal Society genetics research fellowship investigating DNA mutations. The book has already received international acclaim and its rights have been sold in twenty-one countries.

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A review by Greg L. Johnson

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When is it all right to lie? The idealistic answer is; never. Yet in one sense we all lie everyday, even if it's only to the extent of saying "Fine" to a polite inquiry even when things aren't going all that well. Most of us make exceptions for the kinds of little lies that let us avoid awkward moments or simply avoid going into more details than an acquaintance is bargaining for. The place we draw the line is at lies intended either to hurt someone or give us an unfair advantage in a given situation. In The Republic, Plato argued for another kind of lie. This "Noble Lie" was intended to keep the citizens of his ideal society happy by assuring them that their rulers wield power because they are in fact the most noble, wisest, and best of their society. By accepting the noble lie as the truth, the citizens will remain content in the roles their rulers have determined for them.

Which brings us to Bernard Beckett's Genesis. Set in a near future where the inhabitants of an island have walled themselves off from a world dying of disease and devastation, Genesis is nominally the story of a young student facing an examination that will determine her qualifications for the next step up in her career. But with characters with names like Anaximander and Pericles, and a society that refers to itself as the Republic, it's evident that there's more going on here than a simple story about the future equivalent of a doctoral candidate's oral examination.

Anaximander is the student who is undergoing questioning by members of the Academy. During her examination, we learn the details of one of the seminal events in the history of the Republic, a time when a young man named Adam Forde dared to defy one of the basic laws of the Republic and allowed a refugee to land on the island. The consequences of that decision, and Anaximander's interpretation of the events that followed, are a major part of the examination. As far as she is concerned, her future as a scholar rests on the answers she gives. Along the way, Beckett uses Anaximander's and Forde's stories as a means to examine everything from an individual's relationship to society to the differences between artificial and human intelligence, to the need for every society to depend to some extent on its own version of the noble lie.

Genesis itself is also a lie, if only in the sense that all fictions are lies. It starts right on the cover, where the words "A Novel" are placed right under the title. At only 150 pages, Genesis is a bit short of novel-length, but its deception goes much further than that. It's a kind of marketing ploy, of course, a lot more of us are likely to rush out to buy a good new science fiction story than we are the latest example of a Socratic dialogue. And in its discussion of basic issues and question and answer structure, Genesis is in essence a philosophical dialogue disguised as a science fiction story. At its best, Genesis, by causing the reader to question and examine his or her place in and relationship to society, fulfills one of the major purposes of philosophy while also telling a science fiction story whose ending feels like it could have been lifted right out of one of the Golden Age stories of Isaac Asimov or Jack Williamson. In that way, Genesis itself may qualify as a sort of noble lie, one that uses the convention of an SF story to entertain at the same time that it confronts some of the basic questions of a society's existence.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson swears that everything he has written about Genesis is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Really. Greg's reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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