by Bernard Beckett
In the Beginning was Free Will
A review by Bob Hussey
Science fiction has developed a reputation as a pulp haven for love-starved nerds fixated on starships, laser battles, and exotic she-aliens in need of rescue. A pleasant exception to this stereotype is Genesis, a novella that dares to explore the nature of free will and human consciousness without relying on galactic empires to tell the story. The ninth book by New Zealand writer Bernard Beckett, Genesis won several literary prizes down under following its 2006 publication, and was released here this past April in both adult and young adult versions.
The story is set in the future on a planet resembling Earth. Anaximander, Anax for short, is a young student seeking admission to the elite Academy, which produces the academics and intellectuals who govern a remote island Republic. Centuries before, the island was spared the devastating effects of a worldwide plague that wiped out almost all life on the planet. The Republic survived those times through draconian measures, declaring martial law and gunning down any ship or plane that approached carrying survivors from the outside.
As part of the Academy admission process, Anax must undergo a rigorous oral exam before a panel of three examiners. The subject of her exam, chosen by Anax herself, is the life of Adam Forde, a controversial figure from the Republic's past who lived during the time of the plague. Over the course of the four-hour exam, Anax recounts Forde's life, climaxing with his controversial decision to rescue a young girl from the outside who washes ashore on the island. Forde is arrested but subsequently becomes a cause celebre at his trial for the compassion he displayed. He is found guilty but to assuage the masses, receives an unusual sentence: he is to become the full-time companion to the Republic's most advanced robot, whose designers believe is capable of becoming a sentient being provided it has sufficient exposure to real flesh and blood. Forde is initially hostile to the robot, but slowly befriends him during their long incarceration together. Eventually the two plan an escape.
Throughout her retelling of Adam Forde's story, Anax is pressed by the examiners about Forde's motive in saving the girl, his interactions with the robot, and his contributions to the Republic. There is a highly charged debate about whether Forde's decision to rescue the girl placed the entire Republic in peril. The question and answer session about the point when Forde began to view the robot as a friend is also provocative. The end of the exam reveals a surprise link between Adam Forde and Anax, and exposes the Republic as less than enlightened. Science fiction fans looking for wormholes and otherworldly monsters are advised to skip Genesis. But for those interested in exploring the evolving nature of humanity, rendered in the finest tradition of the genre, Genesis is highly satisfying.
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