genesis

BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Bernard Beckett

2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Best ebook deal: Sony eBook Store

Filed under: Sci-Fi

Genesis takes the form of a four-hour oral examination for entrance into a nebulously prestigious institution called The Academy, and it takes less than four hours to read. The novel’s setting is the kind of dystopian future that won’t surprise you. The world has been ravaged by political and environmental disasters, there’s mention of a virulent plague, and there’s something called the Downfall, presumably when the worst disasters coincided.

Against this backdrop and that rather boring sounding structure, Genesis turns out to be a quick, heavily philosophical novel about the ethics and existential questions of artificial intelligence. And it’s quite a bit more gripping than that might sound.

Most characters in Beckett’s fractured future take the name of ancient Greeks—though the events take place in the later twenty-first century and beyond. Prodded by an examiner, our hero, Anaximander, recounts Plato and his establishment of a fascist government called the Republic. And then she gets into her area of expertise, a man named Adam Forde, who saved the world from Plato’s Republic (one of the few jokes in Genesis).

Rather than spend an inordinate amount of time setting up the characters, or the exact chronology of the Downfall and subsequent building of the Republic, Beckett gives just enough to set up a few seminal moments in the history of this world, and then devotes the bulk of the novel to a debate about and exploration of consciousness, morality, and what it means to be human.

In other words, it deals with familiar subject matter, but attacks it head on and so packs quite a few interesting ideas into a very short time frame. Beckett’s writing style is somewhat dry, but he does pretty good dialogue, through which he delivers the crux of the novel. After an odd start that turns out to be somewhat of a red herring, his discussion of artificial intelligence and humanity has some meat on its bones. And Beckett keeps it compelling with a few interesting (if somewhat predictable) plot twists, and a quick pace helped along in no small way by the novel’s brevity.

The ending leans a bit more toward shock and twist than coming to a satisfying philosophical conclusion, but the terrain we pass on the way there is enough to justify the journey. Genesis is well worth an afternoon’s read if you like a dose of philosophy with your sci-fi.

Similar: I, Robot (Asimov), Do Androids Dream of Sheep? (Dick), the movie The Matrix, and pretty much anything else that deals with the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

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