Paperback, 288 pages
Published: July 5, 2012 by Corsair (1st published January 1, 2011)
Setting: Futuristic London
In a future London, in which our society has been decimated by wars between the Arabic world and the West, the affluent have their children genetically improved. Doctors modify the DNA of their offspring to ensure physical attractiveness, intelligence, and athletic ability. Disabilities and illness have been virtually eliminated among the more privileged classes.
Individuals who were conceived naturally — known as the “still-born” or “unimproved” — live at the fringes of society. They are virtually confined to a ghetto, known as The Kross, and make their lives more bearable in any way they can, including drugs and synthetic alcohol. Narcotics trafficking and prostitution thrive in The Kross. This is seen as further evidence of the inferiority of the genetically unimproved rather than a symptom of social injustice.
Holman has a form of dwarfism and may be mildly autistic. He lives in poverty, in the Kross, estranged from his wealthy family. He is a gifted artist, and his sketches and paintings reflect the realities of life among the underclass. He sees beauty in mundane aspects of everyday life: an aging prostitute, the “still-born” who gather at a bar, a child playing marbles in the dirt, a snaggle-toothed cat. Perhaps Holman’s true gift is seeing beauty and dignity in the ordinary and “ugly,” an ability society has lost in spectacular fashion. During the opening scene of the novel, we also see Holman’s compassion, although he doesn’t see it in himself.
When Holman finds a dead pimp in an alley, a mystery begins to unfold. Soon the police are investigating a series of seemingly unconnected murders in The Kross. Unfortunately for Holman, all of the victims have had contact with him.
This is a compelling and complex novel, with rich, vivid world building and memorable characters. It is written from multiple points of view. The other characters include a blind war veteran and writer, a former beauty queen, a “professor” who is guiding the genetic enhancement revolution, a bitter, cruel and bigoted cop, and a jihadist.
Genus is a blend of science fiction, dystopia, and a mystery, and it is thematically and philosophically rich. In addition to delving into ethical issues involved in genetic engineering, it examines personal freedom, repression, social injustice, and the role of religion in society. It explores the spectrum of ways a government infringes on freedom and what a slippery slope that can be. It looks at variations in how people perceive reality and the issue of free will. It also tackles the arbitrary measures society uses to determine human worth. I’ll touch on a few of these themes in this review.
Like virtually all dystopian fiction, Genus offers a sharp critique of the world we live in. I was intrigued by the way it challenges our society’s devotion to “normal.” This is a tricky issue, because what parents don’t want their children to be physically and mentally healthy, intelligent, and attractive? Where do we draw the line between desire to see our children thrive and our society’s tendency to devalue those who aren’t “typical?” This quote speaks volumes:
Art is his only chance, because art is open to all. The last dream of those who had failure mapped out from birth. A few of the Unimproved still break their circumstances as artists. Maybe more do than those supposedly gifted the latest, greatest, brains. Perhaps because there is a hint of mental illness required to be a true master. But genius sits rocking in the dark, uncertain night air with more madmen than poets, so what prospective parents choose the intensity of the schizotypal, the drive of the obsessive, the peculiar clarity of the autist, or the reflective vigour of the manic-depressive mind for their offspring, risking greater perils than potential? None. Parents who enrich stay well within the bell-curve of comfort. And Britain becomes ever blander, even though more typical. (p. 152)
It also explores the qualities which our culture deems as important:
But what you can say is that when parents are selecting characteristics, they go first of course for what they can afford of health, looks, intelligence and athleticism; and then, if they’re filthy rich, more complex bundles like energy, confidence, determination, nerve. Words like compassion, tolerance, and empathy don’t even appear in the brochures. (p. 27)
I was also intrigued by the novel’s treatment of religion. In Genus, religion has been virtually eradicated in Britain.
Now that religion is all but gone, opiates are the opiates of the masses. (p. 31)
Limiting freedom of religion — whether by religious or secular forces — is a powerful tool of totalitarian regimes. Efforts to control individual thoughts, beliefs, and traditions is a particularly invasive form of coercion. Furthermore, in Genus, the forcible repression of mainstream religion has left only the violent factions, as reflected in the jihadist. While traditional religious groups fell, the extremists — undeterred by secular law — thrive.
This novel has far too many interesting themes and philosophical threads to discuss here, which is why I chose to highlight a few. I loved this novel, which I found almost as powerful as Boy A. Among other things it offers gorgeous prose. Here’s a snippet, from a description of a riot:
Police lunged into the crowds but the revellers danced around them to re-form on the other side, like the fractal ballooning of fish schools about clumsy predators. In The Kross it was a carnival, a Mardi Gras to which the sirens and flashing lights only added. (p. 77)
My only criticism, while reading, was that one character — the sadistic police officer known as “Gunt” — struck me as one-dimensional. The author did develop this character — we got glimpses of his past and learned one tremendous secret about him. However — although I appreciated what the blogger at A Tempered State said about “fuck yeah!” male anti-heroes 🙂 — I’d hoped the one important character in law enforcement would be more complex — more conflicted. I’m thinking of the prison guards in Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen. We saw their ruthlessness and dehumanization of inmates, yet we also saw — in a powerful, silent way — the toll it took on the soul of one guard.
This is a relatively small complaint, and — of course — it strongly reflects my biases. And while exploration of some themes was not subtle — I generally like more space for readers to discover important ideas for ourselves — for some reason, this didn’t bother me. Perhaps this is because it was done so eloquently.
This is a bleak but beautiful novel. It portrays some of the worst of human nature, the devastating effects of bigotry, and the human drive to control nature. However, it also reflects the tendency of nature — and of human dignity and creativity — to find ways to survive and thrive. One of this author’s gifts, reflected in this novel as well as in Boy A, is his ability to see beauty and value in people society rejects. This is what I love most about Trigell’s work, and I hope to see it reflected in his future novels.