Fiction Reviews


Genetopia

(2006) Keith Brooke, Pyr, US$25 (est. 17), hrdbk, 303 pp, ISBN 1-591-02333-5.

 

It is a wild world out there beyond the true-human camps. But even within these camps there are the mutts; creatures that were once human but who mutated. It is a world in which true humans fight to preserve their biological heritage, though biology all around them is there on one hand to be used and on the other to be feared and combated. Genetopia is the story of Flint who one day loses his sister Amber. Either she has run off or been sold as a mutt. So Flint sets off away from the safety of his home to seek her among other settlements, mutts and the lost (half-way between true human and mutts).

Genetopia uses two standard plot vehicles: the quest and rite of passage to adulthood. It should appeal to fantasy fans if only for Clarke's Third Law: that 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. Here the world of Gentopia is very much presented as one of superstition and prejudice as opposed to one of science and technology. Having said that there are occasional references to 'vectors' as some of the agents of mutational change and two mentions of tiny machines (so presumably nanotechnology is also somewhere there in the loop), and also a mention of the Fall. Consequently Genetopia also speaks to readers whose interests are more firmly rooted in science fiction but this may not become apparent at first (other than the book's title is a giveaway). Of course those whose take on speculative fiction straddles both SF and fantasy will have no problem in getting to grips with Flint and his genetopian world.

In many senses I am a shallow reader. I do prefer to understand the causes of change, especially biospheric ones, but this is the scientist in me dominating the SF enthusiast appreciation of the genre. I think it was Dick (if I remember correctly) who once said something like it is not the apocalypse that is important to a story but the world it spawns. Genetopia very much takes this last perspective and we never do find out what exactly happened though it is clear that biotechnology was developed to beyond the point of control and ran amok. This Fall is not important, it is what happened next that is.

To me Genetopia is somewhat reminiscent of Brian Aldiss' Hothouse (1962), which in itself is somewhat of an achievement as that story won a Hugo. Having said that, of course there are many differences including the ending. Yet there are similarities. Humanity has evolved and is in the process of evolving but through it all still striving to find its place and sense of identity. Aldiss wrote Hothouse a few novels into fiction writing career. Similarly Brooke also gives us Genetopia early on: he has already had a few novels published but has not yet made it to the big time although is reasonably well known by genre book aficionados in cyberspace, he being a driving force behind www.infinityplus.co.uk. Genetopia is therefore more than just a quest or rite of passage novel. It also whispers (and whispers rather than speaks) reflecting some of the tensions that slowly surfaced throughout the 20th century, and which we will probably have to acknowledge and confront in the 21st, as to humanity's technological development that will have eugenic consequences (and I use that term in the strict scientific sense and not in the phobic, WWII related way that still commonly, and on one level understandably, persists). Our species has already profoundly changed global ecology. Many Pliocene-evolved mega-fauna became extinct around the end of the last glacial, having survived several previous glacial-interglacial transitions quite happily without H. sapiens messing things up. Subsequently, the mega-fauna outside of Africa (the latter co-evolving with hominins) have seen numerous extinctions this interglacial that are more clearly associated with H. sapiens' spread. We have also changed ourselves genetically, such as with the invention thousands of years ago of beer and wine and subsequently increasingly in other ways. Since the 1950s virtually all living things have traces of radioactive isotopes within them that are not previously found in over three and a half billion years of our bioclade. Since the mid-twentieth century humanity has increased global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beyond those seen throughout the Quaternary (about two million years) and the early twenty-first century beyond those since the late Miocene while the pulse of atmospheric carbon we are now generating above natural background (pre-industrial) level is proportionally similar in quantity to that above the then natural background of the early Eocene that resulted in the early Eocene warming some 55 million years ago. In short we live in a world of human-induced global change as well as change of our biological self. Biology is a part of this change, even without biotechnology (in the broadest sense including genomics and proteonomics). So Keith Brooke's whisper is definitely relevant to today. Here we have to deal (live) with a changed world irrespective of whether or not we address the specific causes of change.

But should Brooke articulate this more clearly, or speak above a whisper, or even shout this within his work? Such a question is really one for the author to answer, and no doubt Keith Brooke will do so to his own satisfaction in his own time. If he does, and if the guy is still writing, then watch out. And if you have read Genetopia then, when that time comes, you can reflect that you were among some of the first to hear his whisper.

Jonathan Cowie


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