Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Genetopia cover Genetopia by Keith Brooke

Pyr hardcover - 301 pages
Copyright 2006
Cover art by Brian W. Dow

Book reviewed April 2006

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          In the next century, advances in biotechnology will dramatically reshape the nature of mankind, statutes against cloning and genetic engineering notwithstanding.  In Genetopia, Keith Brooke takes a fascinating look at the consequences when the nature of humanity begins to change at a genetic level.

Genetopia is an original publication of Pyr Books, which in just one year under the adroit direction of Lou Anders has established itself as one of the leading publishers of quality science fiction and fantasy, with a welcome emphasis on the current crop of outstanding British SF writers.  Like many of these British Boom authors, Keith Brooke is remarkably adept at envisioning an almost unrecognizable far future, and Genetopia is an excellent example.

The plot of Genetopia is deceptively simple: a young man coming of age on a lonely quest.  Flintreco Eltarn - meaning Flint of Clan Treco, child of Tarn - searches for his younger sister Amber (Amberlinetreco Eltarn), who he hopes has run away but fears has been abducted.

If this sounds like something you've read before, it isn't.  The strangeness of this disturbing future world is clear from the book's opening scene, when Flint and Amber wander to their village's Leaving Hill, stepping over the bones of infants and youths left to die because they did not look and act enough like True humans.

Flint and Amber live in a lush Earth of the distant future, which has regressed to a level of technology that is primitive by Twentieth Century standards, except for its impressive biotechnology.  For example, most houses are not built but grown from bioengineered pods.  Certain such pods, called oracles, also have some form of artificial intelligence, and people visit them for advice, even though they have no idea how the oracles work.  These biotech advances are apparently leftovers from a far more advanced society, which collapsed when it lost control of its genetic technology.  After the collapse, the remaining True humans inhabit villages scattered through a jungle of new forms of plant and animal life.  To find his sister, Flint must penetrate this dangerous jungle, braving the harsh sunlight of his ozone-depleted world.  (This vision of future Earth as a teeming jungle is something of a tradition in British SF - think of Hothouse by Brian Aldiss or Ian McDonald's Evolution's Shore.)

In the course of his journey, Flint will be caught up in the struggle among the different types of humans created by the genetic alterations of the future.  These are roughly grouped into three categories: unaltered True humans; genengineered "mutts," who have loyalty and complacency bred or gene-spliced into them so that they make faithful slaves to True humans; and the Lost, who are different from True humans in sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle ways.  The mutts seem to have been deliberately altered over the years for various purposes, and they range from very muscular manual laborers to lithe monkey-like creatures.  The Lost, in contrast, are changed in unintended ways.  Some of the Lost were mutations born to True parents, while others were once True humans but changed when they caught the wrong virus or ate the wrong fruit or were intentionally exposed to liquefied change vectors as a punishment.  In addition to these three types of humans, many other animal and plant species have acquired human traits.  For instance, pigs of the future walk upright and clearly have at least as much human as porcine DNA.  It is best not to think about the implications of this when our heroes are enjoying a pork supper.

Flint's sister Amber had an illness as a child which turned the whites of her eyes yellow, and when she disappears Flint fears that she has been mistaken for a mutt or perhaps even deliberately sold into slavery by their abusive drunkard of a father.  Flint's story as he tries to track and rescue Amber is briskly paced and entertaining, albeit a bit too reliant on coincidence, punctuated by a few wonderfully memorable scenes.  In my favorite passage, Amber lashes out against a thug in what at first appears understandable spite, but on closer reading her action has a wonderfully selfless purpose.

Much of Flint's journey in search of Amber is by river, calling to mind Huckleberry Finn.  Like Mark Twain, and in refreshing contrast to the current standard of bloated multi-volume series, Brooke is able to confine his coming-of-age tale to an engaging and relatively short stand-alone novel, even as he uses it to frame important questions about the future of mankind.  It is thus easy to forgive him for glossing over parts of Flint's story, such as Flint becoming a master of martial arts seemingly overnight.

          The cruel system of slavery Brooke portrays necessarily raises issues of diversity and tolerance.  These are important topics and Brooke handles them well, yet he has even bigger fish to fry.  Brooke uses racism as just one example of mankind's unfortunate aversion to anything different.  At the outset of Genetopia, the changes to humanity wrought by genetic tampering seem horrific, but by the end Brooke forces us to reconsider.  Could the alterations to mankind be akin to his characters' transformations as they reach maturity?  As his young characters grow up, they realize how much they have changed, but surely those changes are for the better.
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Copyright 2006 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Keith Brooke reviews, articles, and websites:
keith brooke: author, editor, web developer - author page
infinity plus: Genetopia - a short story by Keith Brooke
The SF Site Featured Review: Genetopia
The SF Site Fiction Excerpt: Genetopia
Genetopia by Keith Brooke - Official review
Emerald City: Issue #125 - Genetopia review

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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