I stumbled upon Genesis by Bernard Beckett at the Book Loft and it seemed like a great fit for me: slim YA post-apocalyptic novel with a philosophical twist. I was inexplicably without reading material and needed to kill some time before a meeting that had been pushed back. so I picked this up and dove in.
Allow me to steal PW’s plot summation:
Anax, the dedicated student historian at the center of Beckett’s brutal dystopian novel, lives far in the future—the distant past events of the 21st century are taught in classrooms. The world of that era, we learn, was ravaged by plague and decay, the legacy of the Last War. Only the island Republic, situated near the bottom of the globe, remained stable and ordered, but at the cost of personal freedom. Anax, hoping her scholarly achievements will gain her entrance to the Academy, which rules her society, has extensively studied Adam Forde, a brilliant and rebellious citizen of the Republic who fought for human dignity in the midst of a regimented, sterile society. To join the Academy’s ranks, Anax undergoes a test before three examiners, and as the examination progresses, it becomes clear that her interpretations of Adam’s life defy conventional thought and there may be more to Adam—and the Academy—than she had imagined.
It turned out to be a quick entertaining read with some meaty philosophical issues in the middle and twist at the end. It struck me as a sort of interesting experiment; not entirely successful but worth doing and enjoyable.
The first half of the book basically sets the scene. Through the dialog during the examination Anax gives an overview of the history that led up to her chosen subject, Adam Forde, and sets the scene of his actions which play a critical role in the history, or myths, of the The Republic as it exists in Anax’s time.
Forde goes against authority and breaks rank in order to save a young girl. His trial stirs up popular sentiment instead of rallying the populace to the authorities. With this in mind they decide against execution and instead assign him the job of acclimatizing a robot with artificial intelligence.
There has been an effort to bring these sophisticated robots up to human or near human levels through prolonged interaction with humans. The mahcines were programmed with the ability to learn and grow but on a number of occasions something had gone wrong and the robots had turned on the humans and killed them.
This interaction between Adam and the robot dubbed ART is the philosophical meat of the book. Art and Adam have an extended conversation about consciousness and what makes humans different from very sophisticated computers.
At first Adam is resistant, to the point of violence, to Art’s way of thinking. But slowly he begins to change his mind. It is just as this story is building to its conclusion – one that Anax thought she understood both the history and her own take on that history – the examiners at the Academy reveal a twist that changes her – and the readers – perspective on everything.
This is one of those books that is more about ideas than it is about literature; and it starddles that line between art and philosophy somewhat awkwardly. As such it works on multiple levels. You have the Greek aspect with nods to Plato, Socrates, Pericles, etc. And The Republic looks much like the famous philosopher’s ideas about how society should be structured. But this is also distracting because it isn’t a perfect fit; the ancient versus modern apocolypse, etc.
And while the examination provides an effective structure – for the most part – on which to hang the story line, trying to fit in the events leading up to the conversation between Adam and Art isn’t easy and Beckett gets bogged down on occasion.
The writing isn’t particular noteworthy but the story is interesting enough, and the book short enough, that the reader’s imagination will carry them forward; provided they are interested in the subject matter Beckett is exploring.
I have a feeling the deeper your knowledge, or interest in, the philosophy involved the more you might enjoy the book. Or perhaps too much knowledge spoils the over-simplified version, I don’t know. I felt like I wanted to go back and brush up on my Plato and The Republic in order to see the deeper connections. This certainly had the feel of a book you could read twice and enjoy it.
In the end, Genesis seems to have succeeded by not trying to do too much. It is a clever and interesting fictional exploration of some deep and difficult questions but it is short enough and simply enough not to bore you. And the twist at the end should bring a smile to your face as you re-think the story in light of the revelation (even if you saw it coming I think it is handled well).
Complete Review adds a note that is worth quoting as it provides some useful background on the books publication but also serves as fitting summation:
Originally published as a children’s/young adult title in New Zealand, Genesis is apparently being presented as an adult title in the US; the UK publisher is trying to have it both ways by releasing it both in adult and YA versions (i.e. with different book-covers). There’s nothing childish about the book, but it is relatively simple sci-fi, and is certainly accessible to younger readers — and probably far more satisfying to them. Nevertheless, it is also enjoyable for mature audiences. It succeeds far more as a novel of ideas than for any literary value (although the presentation — mainly in dialogue — is intriguing enough), and the ideas dealt with here should be of interest to readers of all ages.
I agree. The simplicity and accessibility make it a good fit for younger readers while at the same time making it a refreshing read for older folks.
So if you are looking to explore ideas but don’t want to start with a heavy tome check out Genesis.