In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.
While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.
As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.
Genesis is set entirely within the four-hour examination for Academy admission of one Anaximander. The Academy rules the society of the future, and Anax is one of the very few chosen for examination. The examination focuses on her chosen subject, the life of Adam Forde, who committed a peculiar act of rebellion, and received an even more peculiar sentence for his crime.
The story is quite short, a novelette in fact, and is told through the examination dialogue and recreation of historical record. Society has devolved into war and plague, civilization destroyed but for one remote and isolated pocket. This pocket must defend itself against the plagues ravaging the outside, and rebuild into a new society. The second part of the book deals with the nature of consciousness, with surprising results.
The novel is explicitly a reflection and discussion on humanity, on what it means to be human, to be a thinking being. Mr. Beckett cleverly uses Anax’s examination and the history of society and Adam Forde to explore the subject from a philosophical viewpoint without making it tedious philosophical discourse. A very interesting read.
In the setting for novel, one can get an implant that takes a snapshot of the brain at death (a little like in Altered Carbon). This snapshot is transferred to the databanks of the company Elysian Fields and a sort of electronic heaven. So the dead are not really dead. Looks promising, but my first question is: If these dead can be “alive” why don’t they just implant their cybernetic consciousnesses into cyborgs and roam free? This question is answered, but not really to anyone’s satisfaction.
The story is rather complex, with a host of characters being introduced in the first eighty pages or so. It remains complex for most of the novel, but without ever really coming into focus. The driving threat feels abstract and the actions of the characters are rather erratic.
The writing is average. Many good ideas are competently presented, but there is no sign of prose virtuosity. The author tries a bit too hard with the near future clichés, such as “Brooks Armani”, or the worst one yet: “President Schwarzenegger”. Not because it is implausible, but because it is so uncool. His descriptions of locales are formulaic and boring and I found myself skimming through them.
I was left dissatisfied. I could barely work up the energy to finish the book, and it took a long time. Balfour has some great ideas, but does not present them nearly well enough.