CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 6. . . .November 7, 2008
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
144 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Final Pages.
'There's no such thing as artificial consciousness.'
'No you're not,' Adams eyes burned with conviction. 'You're just a complicated set of electronic switches. I make a sound, it enters your data banks, it's matched with a recorded word, your program chooses an automated response. So what? I talk to you, you make a sound. I kick this wall, it makes a sound. What's the difference? Perhaps you're going to tell me the wall is conscious too?'
'I don't know if the walls conscious, Art replied. Why don't you ask it?'
'Piss off,' Adam snorted, but Art would not be discouraged.
'I think I'm conscious. What more do you need?'
'It's just the way they programmed you.'
'I'm not denying that. So how do you know you're conscious?'
'You wouldn't have to ask that if you had real thoughts. If you had consciousness, you'd know.'
'I think I do have it,' Art told him. 'I think I do know.'
Bernard Beckett, a well-known New Zealand writer for young adults, has won a variety of awards. Genesis is his eighth novel.
Genesis is a story within a story. Anaximander is a bright young student who wishes to enter The Academy, the highest educational institution in the island Republic. To accomplish this, she must pass a gruelling oral presentation in front of a trio of examiners. Being a historian, she chooses the life of Adam Forde (2058 – 2077) as her thesis topic.
Forde is a nonconformist who refuses to follow military orders to shoot any refugees approaching the Republic's shores. Those in power would have liked to execute him as an example to other citizens, but instead, due to public pressure, they choose to imprison Adam with Art, an android who is a new form of artificial intelligence. Adam's role is to help program the android into a more 'human' entity.
The background for all of this action is the Republic (New Zealand) in the late 21st century, and the world has been plagued with climate change, terrorism and a major global war. A man named Plato has fled to New Zealand and chosen to isolate his society completely, even installing a huge sea fence guarded by military outposts. In this way, no refugees from the rest of the planet who might carry potential plague can infect what is now called the Republic. The outpost sentries have orders to shoot any approaching refugees on sight. If they cannot, they, themselves, will be shot by a fellow soldier.
The Republic society contains elements of 1984 and Brave New World. Citizens are divided at birth into classes (labourers, soldiers, technicians, philosophers), and there is virtually no way to change one's classification. Conformity and obedience are the norm; anyone who acts otherwise must face dire consequences. The entire novel has a militaristic and claustrophobic feel to it. The Republic is physically cut off from the rest of the world, society has strict rules which cannot be questioned, and, on a smaller scale, Anaxander tries her five-hour oral exam in a small and stifling room with three stone-faced, unresponsive examiners. Her tension is palpable throughout the book, and readers will find they have a great deal of empathy for her.
The bulk of Beckett's novel is a conversation between Adam Forde and Art the android which touches on topics fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human and what could potentially happen in a society where high level technology becomes more and more the norm. What role would humans have in a world of highly intelligent and capable machines? Adam and Art debate what consciousness means, what the definition of a soul is, whether people should be allowed to think as independent individuals, and much more.
This amazing novel is gritty, thought-provoking and, in many ways, difficult. There are no chapter breaks, and so the tension and suspense are continuous. One feels almost unable to breathe until the final page is turned, and the ending is a shocking and unexpected climax.
Genesis defies classification. It is certainly science-fiction but it delves into so much more: questions of philosophy, ethics, theology. Young adults will find many topics to debate and discuss, just as Adam and Art do in the novel. Older readers will also enjoy the book, exploring its many layers, allusions and images. This is a demanding novel, but well worth the effort as it will certainly shake readers out of their literary comfort zone.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.
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