Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dystopia Challenge Review #2: Genesis, Bernard Beckett

I was so blown away, so upended and shaken about by this novel, that I can't compose my own blurb. Here's the Goodreads summary:

Set on a remote island in a post-apocalyptic, plague-ridden world, this electrifying novel is destined to become a modern classic.

Anax thinks she knows her history. She’d better. She’s now facing three Examiners, and her grueling all-day Examination has just begun. If she passes, she’ll be admitted into the Academy—the elite governing institution of her utopian society.

But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she’s been taught isn’t the whole story. And that the Academy isn’t what she believes it to be.

In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax’s examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy. Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim?

Outstanding and original, Beckett’s dramatic narrative comes to a stunning close. This perfect combination of thrilling page-turner and provocative novel of ideas demands to be read again and again.

That "remote island" mentioned in the blurb is actually New Zealand! I don't know what Kiwis would think about that epitaph. Not a lot, I'm sure. Dystopian novels that feature places in Australia or New Zealand as "last refuges" always amuse me, like John Wyndham's The Chrysalids and On the Beach by Nevil Shute.

You would be served well, before reading this novel, to have read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot or (I shudder to encourage you) see the woeful film adaptation. I can't resist telling you how unutterably awful this film is again so here's an excerpt from my review:

I, Robot I had a similar reaction to: good beginning, bland middle, totally disappointing ending. Robots stage a coup on the human race. Why? Because this big, head robot thing, Viki, has calculated that the human race is annihalating itself through war, violence and a thorough trashing of the planet. Therefore she's going to take charge and see that we're all "safe", ie. chained to the walls or something. Will Smith saves the day, overthrows big, bad Viki and we're all FREE! Free to live without our robot overlords! Free to wage wars and be violent and continue to trash the planet! HURRAH! The end.

What a ridiculous message.

On second thoughts, don't see the film, just read this:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

What, you ask, does a novel about a refuge in a plague-ridden world have to do Asimov's Laws of Robotics? Anaximander is retelling the story of Adam to a panel of examiners, a man a the very beginning, the genesis, of robotic interactions with humans. It is through these discussions that Beckett examines what it means to be human and the dangers and advantages of robotic intelligence. To really do this book justice I would have to sit down and read it again, and someday I will. But I'm already so far behind with reviews that I will simply tell you to read it for yourself and then have a good long think about it. You will need to. Genesis also has one of the most interesting twists I have come across.

Genesis references dystopian classics such as I, Robot, but also the utopian Republic by Plato, "a Socratic dialogue about the nature of justice and the order and character of the just City-State and the just individual" (Wikipedia) written in 380 BC. Anyone who's read much dystopian fiction will hear alarm bells going off when an individual sets about trying to establish a just order of things. Pet utopias have a tendency to go horribly wrong.

Genesis is truly a modern classic.

Thank you Velvet for sending me this book!


  1. Wow, now I'm even more intrigued to read this book - must bump it up to the top of my list. Thanks!

  2. This book sounds awesome. And, I agree, the movie I, Robot was not the best representation of the book...

  3. *Snort* No it wasn't! I'm reading the book now and realising that they really took some liberties with the screenplay.

  4. This book is so amazing. Glad to hear you thought so highly of it too. The end actually brought tears to my cynical eyes, which I've concluded is kind of the point, if that makes sense.

    (Whereas the movie of I, Robot just made my eyes bleed and my heart sink).

  5. Genesis is amazing completely agree and love the post