"The Genome" (7 out of 10) by Sergei Lukyanenko. Published by Open Road Media. Releases December 2, 2014.
I love a lot of books. Science Fiction is definitely a favorite genre. I've also enjoyed many of the Russian classics: "Brothers Karamazov," "War and Peace," etc. What I've never read, until now, was modern science fiction by a Russian. It turns out that the two things actually go pretty well together. But it does come with some unusual quirks: the book has three distinct acts, but they're almost three distinct stories; the world-building is fantastic, and also very Soviet; and while most science fiction characters are intended as microcosm of true humanity, these characters become completely inhuman in their attempts to be better humans.
The first act introduces Alex Romanov and the mysterious Kim. Both are “speshes,” genetically modified humans designed to be experts at a predetermined career. Alex, our protagonist, is specialized as a space pilot. These specializations make him extremely good at his job, but the alterations come at a cost. For instance, his emotional capacity for love is much like a Jedi: individual attachment is impossible, but his hardwired caring for a ship's crew means he'll do anything to protect them. This first act is a great character study and comes close to being a self-contained story but lacks any true conclusion. The tone changes dramatically in the second act when Alex, as captain of a new class of private spaceship, and his new crew (Kim, a “spesh” of unknown designation with a mysterious past; Janet, a warrior-doctor-racist “spesh” pre-programmed to hate all aliens; Puck Generalov, a “natural” navigator, homosexual and hates clones; Paul, a shy, fresh-from-the-academy engineer "spesh"; and Morrison, another pilot “spesh” serving as co-pilot) take on some unusual passengers. This has the potential to become a fantastic sasga, but can't get very far as a story. That is clearly why it shifts gears once again in the third act when it becomes a Doylesque “locked door mystery.” Doylesque is actually an understatement, as Holmes and Watson are actually characters. Unfortunately this version of Holmes is much too ridiculous and the philosophy gets in the way of good storytelling in the finale.
The conclusion and heavy-handed philosophy undermine what is otherwise a brilliant universe. Throughout the first act we learn much about where the writer feels humans are going as a race. It's important to note that this was first written by Lukyanenko in his native language in 1999. Which also means the writer was intimately familiar with Soviet Russia. There are obvious places where this influenced the writing. “Friend-spesh” is clearly future talk for “comrade.” There are also not-so-obvious influences. The very idea of parents, with government encouragement and incentive, choosing their children's careers before they're born is incredibly Soviet. Really, who would choose to specialize their son or daughter as a sewer technician? Such specializations require limiting their sense of smell, diminished height, modified hand structure, etc. I would love to explore this world more fully, but I would never want to live in it.
I'd also like to think humanity's future would simply be more human. The author clearly recognizes this criticism, as he states in the dedication “that many will deem this novel cynical and immoral.” Cynical, yes. Immoral? Maybe, but that depends entirely on your moral structure. Some may contend that having multiple sex partners (homo, hetero, and virtual) is immoral. The allegories for racism can be disturbingly apt. But mostly I find cynicism in the idea that removing “love” from a pilot is some kind of abstract crime. The idea that reclaiming a lost emotion justifies murder, genocide, poisoning, rape, and a violation of a person's genetic code is absurd. The tale is clearly trying to indicate that love is what makes us most human, yet the characters who seem to value it the most are willing to go to the most extreme lengths to be awful.
Ultimately, "The Genome" is a highly enjoyable read. The disparate acts are jarring but effective. The fictional universe is a high point in the genre. The cynicism is striking, but it's also okay to dislike your main characters. It's unusual, but it's okay. Possibly it's even enviable. Then again, maybe I just didn't get the point. “After all, you can express anything orally or on paper... But the possibility is high that you will be misunderstood.”
"The Genome" by Sergei Lukyanenko will be available December 2, 2014 on Amazon Kindle or in physical form from your favorite retailer.