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Book Review: Genetopia by Keith Brooke

* Genre: Science Fiction
* ISBN: 1591023335
* ISBN-13: 9781591023333
* Format: Hardcover, 305pp
* Publisher: PYR
* Pub. Date: February 2006

With elements of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Uncle Tom�s Cabin, and the philosophical underpinnings of a Robert Heinlein novel, Genetopia, by Keith Brooke, explores what it is to be human in a world devolved from its present state.

In Brooke�s future Earth, mankind has fallen from its high technological state into a tribal culture more controlled by the technology it created than controlling it. The advent of nanotechnology and the proliferation of genetic modification at some point in the distant past led to the creation of two races of humans. There are the �True� humans, who maintain all the proper genetic characteristics (although this is subject to change at any moment from the harsh environment) and the Mutts, a subhuman race kept as slave labor. The mutts are genetically incapable of acting out against the True, and so have become the True�s servants and slaves. The setting of Genetopia is hostile to the True. They cannot eat anything wild, must protect against the sun and be very careful of changing fevers for fear of the �changing vectors� that might cause them to become Lost (True humans turned mutt).

Flint and Amberline are two True humans in a village and clan renowned for its application of the �changing vectors� for the betterment of True mankind through the subjugation of the mutts who emerge from the changing vats. Brother and sister, they had always been close, especially because their parents were brutal and selfish and treated both of them poorly. Amberline once suffered the changing fever as a child that left her changed, giving her tan eye color, but was still considered one of the true, and so was not cast out. But when Amber disappears, Flint sets out on a journey to find her and in the process finds out more about his world and himself, not all of it pretty.

Brooke has taken technology we know of now (nanotech and gene manipulation) and taken it to its logical conclusion, assuming a declining civilization. But is that civilization truly declining? Or is it just changing into something different? Brooke makes it clear that True humans have much to fear from the planet on which they live, but that the Mutts, who vastly outnumber the True, have very little to fear. Brooke explores the concept of change as agent for good at cultural and personal levels throughout Flint�s search for Amberline, and the interplay of the separate societies of the Mutts and True.

You may have thought it odd that this review compared Genetopia to Uncle Tom�s Cabin. But after you have read it, you won�t think it so odd. The Mutts live in slavery akin to that propagated by the African Slave trade. Brooke goes out of his way to make sure the reader understands just how debased the mutts are by the True humans. Brooke highlights, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, just how much humanity can hurt its own species, so long as they appear to be different. When wild Mutts fight back against the True, Brooke�s depictions of the True�s reactions show the gamut of emotions that can lead one people to put another into bondage and keep them there.

Flint�s character and personality go through several changes as he searches for Amberline. His character is the thrust of the story and it is his personal struggle with the effects of a changed world that really drives the plot forward. But Amberline�s story is told as well, albeit in a creative way. Except for the final few chapters, we never get inside the mind of Amberline, but are always told her story from an outside observer�s point of view. I hadn�t thought that this would work well, but Brooke manages to make the telling of Amberline�s story just as compelling as the personal insights and reactions of Flint. As the two characters spin around each other, narrowly missing finding one another on several occasions, the reader will feel the anguish of the close calls. Brooke gives Flint a real heart of glass, ready to shatter at any moment under the ache of survival and his desire to find his younger sister. And Amber has a heart as bold as brass, strong and courageous, set on her own survival, even after an irrevocable change occurs in her life, rendering her unable to return to the life of the True.

Brooke�s story has some sex scenes and contains some judicious use of swearing. However, the sex portrayed is, in all but one case, really designed to show just how far humanity had devolved from its high and lofty state. Most of the sexual scenes are bestial, or selfish, or outright rape. So it is appropriate to the story, and no worse than the average R rated movie, but I wouldn�t recommend this book to just anyone, and would keep it out of the hands of children not yet prepared to read such material. For adults, the scenes are more likely to engender horror or disgust, as was most likely Brooke�s intent.

Although some fights occur, Brooke makes his characters to deal more with the aftermath of such situations, rather than enjoy the fight itself. Most of the action comes from placing his characters in mortal danger from which they can only escape by cunning rather than force. For the most part, the fight scenes are left to the reader�s imagination, with only a little guidance as to the details.

Some readers may find that Brooke has a tendency to overtly state what he is trying to convey in the story. Rather than layer the theme in subtlety, Brooke has instead opted to simply have his characters think, say, or feel exactly what he is trying to teach. The story might seem a little preachy to some readers, spending more time on trying to teach the reader something about change than to tell a story. But this is not a thinly veiled social commentary. It is a good story, simple, and written in tightly packed scenes that come from Brooke�s skill as a short story writer. Each scene is powerful in its own right, and each chapter tells a mini-story, and the whole makes an enjoyable novel. Like most short story writers, Brooke is writing with economy, not using many words to relate the narrative, but rather striking right to the heart of the issue.

Genetopia is well-written, asks good questions, and provides an unusual answer. The resolution is heartwarming and sad all at once, and wraps up the story in an unexpected way. Like Heinlein and other science fiction authors, Brooke is asking questions about the nature of humanity and the role science plays in defining that humanity in the future. In Brooke�s vision, science has changed us into something different, not better, nor worse, only different. Flint and Amberline are compelling characters, and their journeys take quite a few unexpected twists. Brooke has written a tight, interesting, and unusual novel in Genetopia that I recommend as a good read for those who want to explore the nature of humanity and for those readers interested in the lost civilizations style science fiction.