Our brains are remarkable, and as technology approaches what can arguably be a very human level of comprehension, ideas about what defines “consciousness” and what qualifies “intelligence” become less and less clear.
Helping us explore the philosophy of these questions is Bernard Beckett’s short sci-fi novel Genesis.
So, Genesis? Fittingly named, this book is about the birth of a robot. Art, this particular robot, has been designed to “learn” using human-like cognition, or in other words: on a day-to-day basis, Art grows like a child. While the idea may not seem novel, Genesis is. It’s like a quick 185-page book should be. It feels like a great night out: everything is inspiringly interesting and nothing lingers just too long.
The story starts in the same room as it ends. We follow Anaximander, a young prodigy, through her rigourous interview for the super-elite Academy. It’s through this interview that we learn about Art the robot.
Genesis is a lot more entertaining than a book that takes place in a single room may suggest. Through the use of futuristic holograms and Anaximander’s incredible strength as an academic, the necessary landscape is drawn. More importantly, the room gives the novel a feeling of claustrophobia and mystery that works in its favour.
Anaximander is the child of an isolated post-apocalyptic society situated on modern-day New Zealand. The rest of the world lies fallen, plagued and disorganized since the “final shot” of the last was fired in 2050.
This is civilization’s final enclave, and as such is protective and dystopian. Reading it, you feel the Orwellian-style fear gripping this society that’s arbitrarily “utopic.” Citizens have traded their freedoms for protection, and the society kills anything approaching from the outside world. This world is clearly organized and monitored down to every echelon of class and manner.
To get in to the Academy, every hopeful must prepare a case study on one subject. Anaximander chose the story of Adam Forde and Art the robot, an event that took place many years in the past. Their relationship acts as a case study for possible interaction and co-existence between humans and robots. Adam is rebellious yet grounded by high moral principles. Art has to prove himself “humane.”
Beckett’s novel starts slowly and doesn’t seem promising at first. It’s worth getting through the first quarter though (plus that only takes about half an hour), because the novel really picks up force and importance after the initial details have been drawn. It’s a page-turner, no doubt about it. It’s an easy read as well. Simply put, it’s satisfying, mainly because it manages to blend an intrigue for AI and post-apocalyptic regimes with a very comprehensible intellectual debate. Expect your heart to miss a couple beats, some head-nodding moments and an ending that will have you look away from the page in disbelief. Don’t you love it when that happens?
Genesis, from Random House, is in bookstores.