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Issue #125 - January 2006

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Being Human

By Cheryl Morgan

Most of you will know Keith Brooke as the editor of the very fine online SF magazine, Infinity Plus. But Brooke also has a secret identity as writer of scary children’s books, Nick Gifford. Now he has decided to scare adults as well. His first SF novel, Genetopia, is due out from Pyr in February, and a very fine book it is too.

The basic premise is a modern twist on an old SF favorite, the post-apocalypse novel. So yes, mankind is reduced to tribalism and primitive technology, except that the disaster that destroyed civilization was not nuclear war, it was nanotechnology, and it might just have been partly deliberate.

Suppose you can use nanotechnology for genetic engineering. You can sculpt any sort of animal or plant to your purposes. What would you do? Well, making the likes of dogs and monkeys a little more intelligent so that they can do useful work would be a good start. We’ve used animals as servants for millennia. Now we can make them better servants. Of course the most important feature we would want to build into that system would be one that induces a dog-like devotion to its human masters into the animal slaves. If we are going to create smarter animals we want to make sure that the humans are safe, right?

But suppose that technology gets lose. Suppose that outside carefully cultivated zones even the plants are deadly. Suppose that the nanotech gets into the air and that human children risk being born hideously deformed. What if it became hard to tell who was truly human and who wasn’t? What if the punishment for certain crimes was a good dunking in the changing vats followed by expulsion from the community, or being sold as a slave?

Welcome to the world of Genetopia, a world in which absolute power has corrupted mankind absolutely. There are slaves to do all manner of work, but the remnants of humankind live in fear behind the palisade walls of their settlements, and everyone lives in fear of being denounced as impure by their enemies. Our hero, Flint, is young and as yet mostly uncorrupted, but as we shall discover he is already party to a dreadful crime. When his younger sister vanishes — he believes sold into slavery by his violent and abusive father — Flint sets out to rescue her. Along the way he, and we readers, discover far more about his world than we might want to know.

Genetopia is not a comfortable read. It is full of vicious and unpleasant people who have become that way because they have found that it works. The power that they have over their non-human "mutt" slaves has taught them to treat everyone with contempt. Brooke cleverly uses imagery from the real world’s slave trade, from the persecution of Jews, from misogyny and so on to reveal the true message of the book.

"To be human is to be fluid, unfixed. Open to change. Humanity is uncertain. Humanity today is not what it was yesterday, and it is only the start of what it will become tomorrow."

The trouble is, given where biotechnology has got to today, that’s a statement about our world, not a statement of science fiction.

I suspect that Genetopia is rather too disturbing to garner any major awards, but I warmly recommend it to next year’s Tiptree Committee. It is, after all, a plea in favor of diversity.

Genetopia - Keith Brooke - Pyr - publisher's proof

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee