Genesis. By Bernard Beckett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.
The Repossession Mambo. By Eric Garcia. Harper. $7.99.
Brain adventures can, in the right hands, be far more exciting than body adventures, even in the SF field. Bernard Beckett’s Genesis is a book in which very little actually happens, except to a limited extent in flashbacks; yet it is a tremendously stimulating short novel that raises complex and profound questions about human beings, intelligence (artificial and otherwise), power and numerous other subjects. It is far and away a better book than the very good but much more typical chase-scene-filled The Repossession Mambo, although Eric Garcia’s novel would translate much more readily into a film (and will: a movie is already in the works).
Genesis is the story of Anaximander, who has applied to admission to an extremely powerful and highly secretive organization called The Academy that stands at the pinnacle of her society. The book follows, hour by hour, her four-hour entrance examination, which consists of answering intense and probing questions posed by a three-member panel while presenting an extended thesis on her chosen subject. That subject is Adam Forde, a long-dead progenitor of the current society who, even though he died at age 19, made decisions with consequences that have continued to reverberate until Anaximander’s time. The nature of those decisions, the reasons Adam made them, and their importance, are revealed only gradually as Anaximander presents her arguments and analyses to The Academy, whose society was built on the ruins of one that attempted to implement in the real world Plato’s philosophy-based Republic from ancient Greece. Anaximander must explain to The Academy – and to readers – how that prior society worked and why it failed, and how Adam played a major role in its undoing. Then she must explain Adam’s punishment for what may or may not have been a crime: to interact on a 24-hour-a-day basis with a failed (or at least incomplete) experiment in artificial intelligence, a mobile being known as Art. Beckett, a genetics researcher as well as a novelist, knows exactly what he is doing in choosing names such as Adam and Art – and Anaximander, who in our world was a Greek philosopher with a strong belief that nature, like human societies, is ruled by laws, and that anything that disturbs the balance of nature does not last long. It is entirely in line with the real Anaximander’s teachings to discover that the fictional Republic of Genesis failed by disturbing the balance of nature. But what of the fictional Anaximander’s own society – one in which, by the way, her tutor is named Pericles? How does The Academy preserve it? Does it preserve it? And what was the true genesis of Anaximander’s society, and how does it relate to the differences and similarities between human and artificial intelligence? In fact, what exactly are those differences? These are disquieting questions, and Beckett’s answers (and refusals to answer) are more disquieting still. Genesis is an intense intellectual exercise that is not for the psychically or emotionally squeamish. So little seems to happen in it, in the sense of present-tense action; but so much of greater importance takes place that this is one of those novels that continue to resonate long after they are over.
In contrast, The Repossession Mambo is nothing but action. It started as a short story and has also existed as a screenplay, and it is easy to see how it could become a slam-bang action film, maybe even (if well enough made) a cult classic along the lines of Blade Runner or Minority Report, both of which it strongly resembles. This is not a book that will stay with you after you finish it, but it is one of those thrill-a-minute rides that offer plenty of excitement while they endure. The “repo” here is not of cars but of bodily organs: the underlying assumption is that, in the near future, you can replace just about anything with a nearly indestructible artificial copy, provided you pay (and pay and pay and pay) for the replacement. Payment goes to an organization called the Credit Union, and if you balk or go broke or stop paying for any reason whatsoever, a Bio-Repo agent comes after you and cuts you open, pulls out the organ in question, and leaves you very dead. The book is the story of a top-notch Bio-Repo man named Remy, who has gone through five marriages, been knocked unconscious four times, is distanced (deservedly, as it turns out) from his one child (by his third wife), and is very good at what he does – until he finds himself a target for bio-repossession of his artiforg (artificial organ), his heart. “Let’s face it: Anyone who keeps knocking back the booze even after they’ve been fitted with an artiforg doesn’t deserve a whole lot of dignity in death,” opines Remy early on, in what passes for introspection. Later, when he is twelfth on the Hundred Most Wanted List and fleeing for his life, he gains no significant additional insight, although at one point he does say he has learned “to see color in a world that used to be so perfectly black-and-white.” But as Remy chronicles his life on the run (using an old manual typewriter, of all things), readers do learn more and more about the culture of Bio-Repo agents – not only the rough camaraderie but also the tremendous potential for abuse of trust, which in Remy’s case has to do with his best friend, Jake, who (in the tradition of many stories of this type) ends up being assigned to hunt Remy down. The twists and turns here are expertly done, although mostly to be expected; the novel gets a (+++) rating as a fast and furious read packed with considerable intensity – even though its plot and all its characters ultimately turn out to be forgettable.