Monday, 24 November 2014

The Genome: Loose morals... and even looser plotlines

The Genome is the latest novel from Sergei Lukyanenko, the sci-fi and fantasy author, and now modern Russian figurehead for the genre since his Night Watch novel was made into one of the few Russian movies to cross over to Western blockbuster status.

The success of that film will likely draw a fair few new English-speaking readers to this novel, but they’re likely to find the book as frustratingly baffling as the film’s sequel, Day Watch.

Things start out well as we meet Alex Romanov, a genetically altered “master pilot-spesh” who’s just had half his body regrown after an accident at work. It’s fair to say we’re in the rather distant future, where humanity is living throughout the universe thanks to loosely explained six-dimensional hyper-channels, and can genetically predispose their offspring for certain jobs.

Thanks to Alex’s souped-up body, he can assess distance and velocity at a glance, retain mobility at six Gs and stay conscious up to 12Gs. All very handy.

He’s also had the capacity for romantic love genetically removed somehow, for some rather weakly explained reasons to do with being a father figure for his crew and only “loving” his ship when he buries his consciousness in its artificially intelligent but non-self-aware operating system.

Straight off the bat, Alex runs into Kim O’Hara, a 14-year-old girl who’s also a “spesh” and about to enter her pupation phase. The genetic modifications, you see, aren’t present from birth, but come on in early puberty in what seems like a rather gratuitously gruesome and painful process for such a medically advanced civilisation. However, all basically acceptable sci-fi stuff. Shortly thereafter, things get decidedly odd.

Alex gets a job as pilot and captain of a ship, interviews and hires a suitably hodge-podge crew of oddballs and misfits guaranteed for plot-driving conflict, and takes off for distant destinations. So far, so typical.

Then, after a rather boring middle section, the novel suddenly becomes a classic whodunit with Sherlock Holmes investigating with the help of Alex after a murder on board. Well, not actually the actual Sherlock Holmes, the clone of a detective-spesh who modelled his genetic modifications on Sherlock Holmes, but he’s basically Sherlock Holmes.

It’s not that this idea doesn’t have legs, it’s just that it sort of comes out of nowhere and there are so many Holmes homages at the moment that it’s all a bit passé
Then there’s the strange sexual politics and morals. That 14-year-old girl the captain gallantly rescues is a fighter-spesh with super killing skills. She also happens to have been genetically conditioned to be hyper-sexed and fall in love with people at the drop of a hat (again, how the hell? But, anyway). This does not seem to be the least bit disturbing to Alex, nor is the fact that faithfulness doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Lukyanenko frames all this as a kind of sexual enlightenment, an anything-goes attitude towards sex. We may just about be able to accept that 14 could be the new age of maturity in a future society, however distasteful that is, and take the rest of it as sexual enlightenment. But then why is the homosexual character in the book still discriminated against? If it’s all so enlightened and all, that kind of attitude doesn’t really fit.

What it really looks like is the kind of wish-fulfillment stuff that sci-fi, horror and fantasy authors are often mocked for: creating a world that’s just a place where they can indulge their lurid fantasies rather than one in which plot or intention matter to the book.

There’s plenty of potential in Lukyanenko’s world-building, but it’s all squandered on these jarring societal mores and that weird plot curveball that sees Sherlock Holmes show up. The book ends up neither here nor there and, since it’s also kind of tasteless, there’s not much left to recommend it.

First published in The Register.

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