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Genesis, US cover

Genesis, UK cover

One of the stylistic challenges posed by science fiction is how to write about abstract ideas on a human scale. Some authors (like Greg Egan) concentrate on the abstract, retaining the minimum of human elements to keep the story accessible. Others (like Stephen Baxter) shove the abstract into the forefront but remain committed to their human characters, using differences in scale to create an image of an inconsequential humanity completely subject to vast impersonal forces. Certain writers (such as Olaf Stapledon) even go so far as to do away with human elements entirely, providing a neat polar opposite to the many SF authors who write primarily about human events with the odd Big Idea thrown in to make things interesting. Regrettably, while authors should constantly be striving to find new ways to answer this question, certain tried and tested techniques have come to dominate the literary landscape with the calls for "strong characters we can empathise with" forever drowning out the voices of those calling for the breaking of new ground. Bernard Beckett's Genesis attempts to answer this stylistic question by framing its story as a series of dialogues interspersed with short historical re-enactments and interludes in which we learn more about the protagonist. This amalgamation of Platonic dialogue, Stapledonian fictional history, and accessible SF prose yields rich rewards for Beckett right up until the book's climax where an undignified scramble for a conventionally satisfying ending comes dangerously close to undermining the entire work.

The four dialogues that make up the book are hour-long oral examinations in history undertaken by a character named Anaximander who is trying to gain access to the greatest academic institution of her future society. What really shines through in the early dialogues is a wonderful awareness of the rhetoric of debate.

Even though Anaximander's research focused upon a historical figure named Adam, she has to begin by giving the historical background that led to the foundation of her society:

Superstition is the need to view the world in terms of simple cause and effect. As I have already said, religious fundamentalism was on the rise, but that is not the type of superstition I am referring to. The superstition that held sway at the time was a belief in simple causes.

Even the plainest of events is tied down by a thick tangle of permutations and possibility, but the human mind struggles with such complexity. In times of trouble, when the belief in simple gods breaks down, a cult of conspiracy arises. So it was back then. Unable to attribute misfortune to chance, unable to accept their insignificance within the greater scheme, the people looked for monsters in their midst.

The more the media peddled fear, the more the people lost the ability to believe in one another. For every new ill that befell them, the media created an explanation, and the explanation always had a face and a name. The people came to fear even their closest neighbors. (pp 7-8)

I have quoted this passage at some length partly because I think it is genuinely insightful (and, for example, very much in line with accusations levelled at the media by the documentarian Adam Curtis), but also because I consider it to be beautifully written. The short sentences make the answer punchy while the repetition of certain sounds ("Permutation and Possibility" and "Unable to attribute . . . Unable to accept") lend it a real oratorical force. But aside from being well written in its own right, the passage also has all of the signs of being a "pat answer." By this I mean an answer based upon the kind of information that has been drilled into you since childhood; accepted wisdom drawn from work once done by scholars but now dispensed to students and regurgitated in return for good grades and pats on the head.

ANAXIMANDER : History has shown us the futility of the conspiracy theory. Complexity gives rise to error, and in error we grow our prejudice.

EXAMINER : You sound like Pericles.

ANAXIMANDER : The words may be his, but the sentiments are my own. (p. 30)

In other words, when asked to diagnose the problems of our time, Anaximander gives the kind of punchy, well-rehearsed, glib answer that a modern student of history might give when asked about the causes of the American Civil War or the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. This effortlessly places us in a future setting and goes some way to introducing us to the mentality of the inhabitants of this future. Intriguingly, when Anaximander is pushed for answers on her original research, the oratorical flourishes disappear from her answers and she starts to drift into cliches and triteness:

He has done what he believes to be right, and now finds his world spinning out of control. (p. 44)

We see here the battle that every person faces. For while he may reason one way, he is still victim to his emotions. (p. 86)

These are answers that are almost certainly correct, but they lack any kind of explanatory power. What do we learn by saying that a historical figure's emotions were in conflict with his rational faculties? Surely this conflict exists not only in all people but in practically in every situation we face. Time and again, when Anaximander is pressed for answers, her language becomes more guarded and generic; testament to someone whose desire to not say the wrong thing or display ignorance outpaces her insight into the material. This is a fantastic piece of linguistic characterisation, not least because it radically clashes with the perception that Anaximander has of herself as someone who will speak the truth and let the heavens fall, thereby setting up a climax where Anaximander is forced to choose between the person she is and the person she thinks she should be as a good historian.

This conflict continues in Genesis's treatment of other issues.

Anaximander's society grew out of the ashes of The Republic. Founded by Plato (one of many classical and philosophical references that permeate the text), The Republic is an island nation that has retrenched itself from the outside world behind large walls and armed guards. However, rather than the philosophical polis envisioned by the historical Plato, Genesis's Republic is a society paralysed by an all-encompassing siege mentality.

Soldiers like Adam, fresh from school and with a compromised record, were left to man the remote watchtowers sprinkled along the southern coast. [ . . . ] The sentries worked in pairs and their routines were strictly prescribed and monitored. [ . . . ] They were instructed to notify the station of the sighting, and then one of them would leave the watchtower and follow the path to the firing post. There, a small-scale laser [ . . . ] would be used to obliterate the craft." (pp. 16-17)

Indeed, with its high walls, citizen militia, chilling disregard for civilian casualties as long as they are on the opposition's side, and frequent evocations of supposed existential threats as roadblocks to political progress, Beckett's Republic resembles modern-day Israel far more than it does anything dreamt up by the historical Plato. However, this is not part of some metaphorical critique of Israeli politics. Genesis is not a symbolic book. It requires no key to decode it and no crib sheets to help us spot references. Instead, it is more fruitful to look upon the book as directly engaging with political concepts such as the disconnect between the ideals and values that a society is founded upon and how those values change over time. This change can either be due to the realities of government and the sacrificing of morality to expediency (a theme explored by Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels), or due to a society not knowing when to surrender its founding vision to the whims of the intellectual marketplace as demanded by the ideals of Democracy. In both cases, the tension is between how a society presents itself and how a society in fact is.

This tension also resurfaces during Beckett's attempt to deal with the question of artificial intelligence. Adam—the soldier mentioned in the above quotation—is the focus of Anaximander's research. The later dialogues deal with a time when Adam was sentenced to spend his life living with a robot so that the robot's AI might learn from more stimulating company. This sets the stage for a number of grand debates between Adam and the robot Art, including one particularly memorable speech in which Art recasts the history of evolution as what Richard Dawkins might call "The Selfish Meme":

"You people pride yourself on creating the world of Ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Idea enters the brain from the outside. It rearranges the furniture to make it more to its liking. It finds other Ideas already in residence, and picks fights or forms alliances. The alliances build new structures, to defend themselves against intruders. And then, whenever the opportunity arises, the Idea sends out its shock troops in search of new brains to infect. the successful Idea travels from mind to mind, claiming new territory, mutating as it goes. It's a jungle out there, Adam. Only the strongest survive." (p. 98)

Before concluding :

"Thought, like any parasite, cannot exist without a compliant host. But how long would it be, did you think, before Thought found a way of designing a new host, one more to its liking? Who built me, would you say? Who built the thinking machine? A machine capable of spreading Thought with an efficiency that is truly staggering. I wasn't built by humans. I was built by Ideas." (p. 98)

Art is presented as friendly, engaging, and terrifyingly intelligent. By contrast, his human companion is a sulky, foul-mouthed teenager prone to violence and—in a move that nicely mirrors Anaximander's rhetorical quirks—incapable of presenting an argument that does not rely on some quasi-mystical entity such as "miracles," "feelings," "meaning," or "souls." And yet, it is supposed to be Art who is learning from these interactions. Not Adam. Adam is provided as a model for what Art should become. Art is expected to learn from Adam's intelligence and his way of thinking in order to become, if not more human, then more intelligent. However, even when Adam first arrives, it is clear that Art is already a better man. What he is supposed to learn from Adam he already has. What Adam has that Art is not supposed to learn is what he actually teaches him. The tension between what Art is supposed to be and what he really is ultimately fuels the book's rather unsatisfying conclusion.

As an experimental work, Genesis faces some of the same challenges as Art. What we expect from an SF novel is not what the book's structure permits. By framing the novel as a series of dialogues, Beckett can explore a future world with all of the Big Picture power of Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) whilst showcasing some technical fireworks. By using holographical historical re-enactments Beckett also manages to zoom in on particular historical events and examine their human context before flipping back to examination mode in order to link these vignettes back to the wider picture. This is spectacularly effective as a means of communicating abstract ideas but it does not really allow the author any space for traditional narrative techniques. In other words, because Anaximander is a conduit for ideas and both Art and Adam are historical cyphers, we have no reason to care what happens to any of them. Genesis is a book about ideas and style, not about characters. Unfortunately, rather than accepting this and allowing the power of his ideas and prose to carry the book (as Stapledon did), Beckett forces a conventional ending onto his unconventional structure. Furthermore, because neither his characters nor his narrative support a big emotional pay-off, Beckett overcompensates by ending the book in a manner that is not only ridiculously melodramatic but also tricksy, hackneyed, and completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.

This poorly judged and ineffective ending serves only to force us to look back over the book as though it were a traditional novel. In an experimental work, the fact that various historical events are never fully detailed does not matter, nor does the fact that Anaximander has little existence outside of the exam hall. But if Beckett wants us to react to Genesis as though it were a traditional novel then these side-effects of formal innovation become massive gaping plot holes and piss-poor characterisation. If there is one message that Genesis conveys it is that "stories about people" are not always an efficient way of communicating ideas. In fact, as the opening quotation points out, an obsession with keeping things on a human scale can actively serve as a barrier to the truth. It is therefore not only unfortunate but deeply ironic that Beckett makes this very mistake, nearly undermining a work that is otherwise not only a great read but, I would argue, important in the challenge it represents to an asphyxiating formal orthodoxy that is slowly crushing the life out of science fiction.

Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.

Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
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