I’m still writing like a fiend. My young adult novel is due in October, and so I’m working steadily on it. But I must be low on the intake valve, because I’m also reading a lot.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been whipping through a graphic novel/manga series called HIRAKU NO-GO at top speed. I’ll take three out of the library and have them done by the next morning (which is really fast for me with my dyslexia). As I was waiting for Mason to decide which GOOSEBUMPS to bring home, a couple of books on the new releases shelf caught my eye. I picked up a new one by Mike Resnick and a short novel by Bernard Beckett called GENESIS (hard cover, Houghton Mifflin Harcort. 2009.) GENESIS apparently had an Australian printing in 06, but I’m going to treat it as a brand new title. My review will be under the cuts.
However, I will say this above the fold, since it has no spoilerage: if you’re into artificial intelligence, questions of the soul, and have a high tolerance for irritating writer trickery, this book is for you. It’s a fast read, and the theme and world-building bits are outstanding.
Also, please note that because of the "writer trickery" I end up spoiling the ENTIRE PLOT. Read no further if you have any intention at ALL of reading this book. (Also... this turns into a kind of weird rant. I thought about editing it, but I think I have some valid points, so I left it. My apologies to Mr. Beckett. Really, I don't hate YOU. I don't even entirely dislike your novel. In fact, it can be argued that I wouldn't get worked up over something I found worthless...)
The story is structured as a series of interviews between a female candidate for “The Academy” and the admissions board. It’s written on the page like a transcript, ala:
At first I found this sort of off-putting, but I actually got quite used to it.
As the story begins, it becomes obvious that our heroine has chosen a controversial figure from the past (our future, ‘natch,) named, of all things Adam. She spends the first third of the book telling us/the examiner’s his story.
At this point, I figured the story was, in effect, about Adam, the hero of the Revolution. I couldn’t figure out why the author had chosen to “tell” rather than “show,” but I assumed that there would be a secondary story with our heroine that would chance the course of the current world. Plus, Beckett manages to get around this heavy “telling” by having several sections dramatized either by having our heroine spout memorized passages of transcript or, later, via her final project: a holo re-enactment of critical scenes.
During the breaks in the interview, the reader gets a sense that there’s something ominous about “The Academy,” but it’s not clear what. Also, it’s implied that by choosing Adam as her subject matter our heroine is perhaps taking on the established academic Idea, and that this is more than a casual debate about history.
Then along comes a series of writerly bait-and-switches...
The story of Adam, which up until this point has seemed to be about how he affected and changed a colony based on Plato’s Republic that arose after a huge biological war that wiped out much of humanity, suddenly shifted. He’d been tried for treason for having brought someone into the colony from Outside. Outside had appeared to me to have been the focus of a lot our heroine’s “thesis” and Adam’s general inability to fit into this highly structured, stratified, and segregated society. She continues to tell how he became a folk hero and thus avoided the death penalty. His punishment was to spend time with an AI that had been in secret development by a person in the philosopher class named William.
My brain suffered a bit of whiplash at that, because I was like “what’s this now an AI? Had we heard much of this?,” yes, I remembered, a little, but I thought, “Oh, okay, there have been hints of a major society shift after Adam’s rebellion, so maybe we’re beginning the endgame now.”
The AI and Adam have a series of fascinating philosophical debates about the nature of the soul. Adam is characterized as a robot-hater and a champion of the human experience. There is much discussion among the heroine and the examiners about Adam’s distrust of the A.I., “Art,” who, incidentally, looks like WALL-E wearing an orangutan mask.
Despite the fact that we’re led to believe that the story of Adam and Art ends with Adam’s speech about how awesome it is to be human, the examination board tells our heroine that no, there’s more to the story. They show her how Art (the A.I.) and Adam conspire to escape together, and – (drum roll, please) – how Art betrays Adam and actually goes against his directive and kills Adam.
Enter the second bait and switch...
Now, with less than twenty pages left, we discover that our heroine isn’t human. She’s an “organ,” one of the replicated AI’s that Art made of himself after escaping via a download from the prison.
Before I can even really recover from that, we get the next zinger...
The Academy is a front, designed to weed out “bad seed” like our heroine who have an unnatural attachment to the rebellious human, Adam. It’s some kind of litmus test for corruption, apparently. Orangs who are into Adam turn into killer robots or something.
Our heroine is killed.
Wha...? I can’t say that the author, Beckett, didn’t leave plenty of foreshadowing for his big reveals, but there’s something about stories like this that always feels, well, cheap to me. I know plenty of professional authors have done this, some of the stories are, in point of fact, classics. In that way, it’s a well established tradition in science fiction.
But I still hate it.
It can be very effective to mess with people’s assumptions. I love what Elizabeth A. Lynn did in her books when she’d start with a sentence like, “The soldiers ran after the thief,” and then in the next line reveal by use of pronouns that the soldiers and the thief are all women. That always made me question my own internalized sexism, and, even though it briefly knocked me out of the story. But the bait and switch in this case happens so fast that it, to me, is much more forgivable.
The saving grace of GENESIS is that it’s a very short book... in fact, it almost seems novella length. Because I didn’t waste any money on it (having gotten it from the library) and I didn’t waste too much time on it (it often takes me months to read regular size books thanks to my mild dyslexia), I could just shrug it off. If I’d spent hard cover price and it was 400 pages long before all the bait and switch started, I’d have tossed it across the room.
I think the issue is that I think the fundamental assumption about writer trickery is wrong. Obviously, the author can’t describe the heroine because (tee-hee) she’s actually an alien/A.I. Perhaps the author assumes I’ll leave my mental canvass blank so that when he adds his brilliant brush strokes of surprise, my image of her is still unpainted. Alas, that’s simply not true.
It’s the magic of writing. You give me a hint, I paint the sky, the land – everything. In some ways, the less you show, the more my brain is forced to create on its own. (There’s, of course, a limit to this. If there’s nothing, my brain often rejects all that hard work entirely, and I give up on the story, unfinished.) This is what people mean when they talk about painting a scene with light “brushstrokes.” The idea that a small hint of the color of the sky, perhaps, will allow the reader’s brain what it needs to fill in the rest.
Anyway, when a bait-and-switch happens, I have to tear down my internal picture and press the do-over button. The process of having to do that isn’t instantaneous. It’s a hic-cup. The author has knocked me out of the story. I suddenly have a moment Outside, and I realize these are words and there is a writer and I am a reader and, oh, shit, that person I’ve been identifying with isn’t a person at all... you cheater!
The more of these piled on, the more I’m aware that the author has purposely set out to fool me. Now the author seems like an arrogant prick. The story recedes into the background and now I’m just thinking about how clever the writer thinks s/he is to have messed around in my head. I’m still reading because I’m generous and would like the author to turn this thing around and actually impress me with his/her cleverness instead of just making me feel like a prat.
Then by killing off the heroine, the author is like – ha, ha, nothing mattered. It’s all just as it was in the beginning -- a little mental masturbation for you. It was good for me; was it good for you?
No! It wasn’t. In fact: Ick!
Okay, that was probably a bit too graphic and thus a bit too harsh, but, in essence, that’s what I feel the moment I finish one of these bait-and-switch stories.
Did I mention I hate them? :-)