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Bernard Beckett
Harcourt, 150 pages

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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SF Site Review: Genesis

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A review by David Newbert

"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."
-- Art

The Socratic Method gets a workout in Bernard Beckett's SF novel Genesis, which drifts to our shores in North America after having been published three years ago in New Zealand, where it was marketed to young adult readers. Here it's being called adult fiction, probably to take advantage of its self-conscious coolness and ascetic style. It's one of those questioning society stories that SF is famous for, built almost entirely on conversation and internal monologue. There's no sex and precious little violence; ideas are the novel's subject, contemplation its attitude, and the only thing it has that resembles action is brought in by the characters at third hand via holograms.

And yet the book grabs your attention. It's never boring, and its basic questions -- what separates men and machines, how can artificial intelligence be creative, at what point can AI be considered "self-aware," and how do Ideas come into being -- are clichés in the SF genre, but this book handles them nimbly and with considerable charm. If you like a compelling intellectual thrill, Genesis doesn't disappoint.

Beckett's novel centers on Anaximander (Anax, for short), an extremely bright young student in The Republic, a post-apocalyptic society that has sealed itself off from the outside world. In the decades since the world's Last War, The Republic has strictly arranged itself according to Platonic ideals, including gender separation, controlled breeding, and class separation. Some have even gone so far as to adopt Greek names for themselves, like Anaximander, Pericles, and so forth. Anax hopes to enter The Academy, the society's governing institution, but first has to pass a four-hour interview concerning her views on the Republic's most controversial figure: agitator Adam Forde.

We're introduced to Forde as a teenager, when he defied the aggressively isolationist Republic by rescuing an ocean-drifting refugee instead of shooting her on sight. Convicted and thrown in prison, he was forced to share his cell with Art, his generation's latest and best android model. Art's creator hoped that spending time with a radical human mind would improve Art's development. (An earlier miscalculation resulted in the death of schoolchildren.) And so began a battle of wills and Ideas, one that eventually determined Adam Forde's fate, and the fate of The Republic itself -- and years later, in ways that can't be suspected until the end, will determine the fate of Anaximander.

Anax is an endearing young woman who has come to embrace human dignity and individual rights against the state, while trying not to give her true mind away to her interrogators. That simple battle -- of having to know when to lie and be sincere -- is paralleled several times in the narrative, both by the stories of Forde and Art, by the history of the Republic, and by metaphors such as John Searle's Chinese Room. It's also a strategic choice of Beckett's, as much of the "real" story of what happened would be given away to readers, if only our author were a little more forthcoming… Call it a lie of omission.

The combination of Platonic dialogue, dramatic re-enactment and traditionally omniscient narrative, played out mostly in a couple of void-like interiors, would work beautifully if adapted to the stage. It would certainly be inexpensive: Genesis is almost entirely about pitting abstract concepts one against another, and then examining the conclusions that can be drawn. Everything in the narrative is minimalist: descriptions, character arcs, dialogue. (Really, $20 is a bit much to ask for a book that only runs 150 pages with plenty of white space). But like a series of swift and masterful brush strokes, it adds up to an engrossing picture, and Beckett makes it well worth the few nights it'll take to finish it.

Copyright © 2009 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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