Title: The Genome
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Publication Date: 12 December 2014
Note: ARC received via Amazon Vine program
*Warning: Contains potential spoilers throughout*
Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome is classified as science fiction and probably best considered under the speculative fiction label. The story of Alex, who finds himself the captain of a spaceship that takes non-human species on tours and on which everyone seems to have a secret, is told largely through dialogue. This type of writing should provide the author the ability to make each character unique and make them sound like rounded people. Instead, the dialogue often reinforces the one dimensionality of the characters by not allowing us, the readers, to observe their actions. The lack of dimensionality may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the majority of the characters are speshes. That is, people who have been genetically altered for certain tasks. Alex, the main character, is a pilot spesh whose main abilities are described as piloting space craft and keeping the occupants of the craft safe. He is, we are told, incapable of love as a result of these specializations.
Lukyanenko’s book has a problem with all the characters, but women in particular. Of the two females that play the largest part in the narrative, neither manages to rise above the need for a man or escape Alex’s need for occasional sexual gratification. To be fair, even the male characters in the book are fairly one-dimensional and no one outside of Alex seems present other than to help Alex’s emotional journey get from point A to point B. However, portrayal of two of the women is particularly problematic considering they have the most specializations of anyone in the novel.
First, let us consider the doctor and stereotypical large black woman, Janet. Yes, that is how the book describes her when her physical appearance actually comes up. Despite her various specializations (she is part of Alex’s crew for her capabilities as a doctor but lists four others), Janet’s main problem is that she apparently needs a man by the end of the book. When we first meet her she is a bit opinionated and may be trouble in the event of non-human species coming aboard the ship because of her past role as an executioner-spesh. She even assists Alex with a dilemma in her role as doctor early on, but sometime after having sex with Alex that role is no longer of consequence.
The penultimate sequence in which we learn anything about Janet illustrates the dilemma of her going from being a doctor and having opinions and struggling with her ingrained dislike of non-humans to her apparent need for male affection. Alex, as peeping tom, watches her attempt to seduce the now confused homosexual character Puck. The author makes a point that she is completely naked while Puck is only half so. The scene is meant to show that Alex’s emotional abilities have changed from the beginning of the book and that he moving beyond just having sex for gratification. However, even he thinks of her as a sexual object, something to be observed and desired for her body instead of her spesh abilities. If her early role was to be a co-conspirator, her later role is that of satisfying a man’s desires even if he does not know what those are.
This brings us to Kim, a fourteen-year-old nymphet. While the opening chapter is one of the best and introduces Alex to Kim and both to us readers, it, too, is not without challenges when taken in context of the whole book. Age withstanding, Alex is thrown immediately into caring for her when he realizes she has yet to undergo the spesh equivalent of puberty (which is described in terms of a caterpillar’s changing into a butterfly in one night) to the point that she is naked and he is clothed in a non-erotic sense. It is intriguing to note that the author makes a point of Kim’s changes being internal and mental compared to physical so that her outward appearance to Alex is basically the same before and after the metamorphosis. However, with those mental shifts comes the problem of her imprinting on him. Kim not only wants Alex’s love but needs it and not just in the mental sense.
Muddling the waters, of course, is the fact Kim is only fourteen. Even if she were four years older, thus making the pairing more appropriate, Kim’s role is still to push Alex into a situation where he wants to be capable of loving another regardless of physical attraction. He wants to see her as more than something to have sex with. As soon as he sleeps with her (and the same holds true with Janet to a degree), Kim’s initial defining characteristics take a back seat to her pre-described function in Alex’s life. Kim’s dialogue in relation to her need for Alex is uncomfortably misogynistic. Kim seems to look to him for love and acceptance in order to be a person herself. To make matters worse, we find out that she’s essentially been programmed this way by another character who claims he can help Alex find that feeling he longs for. The argument then becomes something akin to woman not only needing a man to survive but that they have no purpose in life without men filling a void and telling them they need to be a certain way.
If you’re looking at The Genome and thinking it’s going to be
thought provoking and speculative from the item description, I’m telling you it’s not. The
writing never sits on an idea and explores it instead opting for a
musical chairs approach and hope you win the cake in the end. The book reads like a morality tale more than science fiction. In fact, the science part is mostly connected to the genetic alteration that makes speshes and the very brief space travel that occurs. This is truly more the speculative variety, but not good.
Thematically, Sergei Lukyanenko inserts some talking points, but the
lack of exploration and explanation are obvious the further in you go.
Things just are the way they are more often than not. Characters, too. If there is anything to be gained from the book it’s the talk of how genetic alteration is not without risk. However, even that theme gets mired in the muck of people being treated solely as. Were the men treated more equally in tone, I might not feel so negatively toward the book. There is an obvious difference, too, when you look at Puck in particular. Alex mostly ignores the fact that Puck is not only homosexual but a natural (i.e. not genetically enhanced). Yet Alex actively pursues sexual encounters with women he knows he cannot possibly have a mental romantic attachment to. That the detachment is chalked up to genetics just cheapens the relationships and encourages the male dominant narrative of men treating women as objects rather than fellow humans, which is odd because the book seems to be saying something about acceptance of all sorts of people and their beliefs.
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book. It’s sad to think that, even in the future, women would just be objects for male gratification. Genetically altered but still just objects. This type of thinking does not good storytelling (scientific, fantastical or otherwise) make.