Genetopia is the first U.S. publication for British writer Keith Brooke, courtesy of the aggressive internationalism of Lou Anders at Pyr. While I thought the plot got a little monotonous, I admired enough about this book to give it a cautious recommendation to adventurous readers. Brooke has imagined an interesting future in which biotech has gone haywire. Instead of offering up a cautionary, grey-goo jeremiad in the tradition of, say, Greg Bear's Blood Music, he stages a fascinating scenario in which "True" humans are taking every step possible to avoid being toppled from the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder. But like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, it's only a matter of time before the pressure gets to be too much. They are only holding off the inevitable. The posthuman future lurks around the corner like a bandit.
Brooke gives us no clear time frame for his story. We aren't sure if this is the 23rd, 28th, 40th, or 96th century. It's effective, because the novel's characters have no real sense of their own distant history either (like the post-holocaust survivors of Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, you might say). They live in a world in which most everything is organic to some degree. Even buildings and boats are grown, and True humans, clustered together in thriving agricultural clans, must always be cautious of elements in the environment that could cause drastic mutations in their own DNA, turning them into one of the "Lost." There is a slave system, too. Mutants called mutts are engineered in vats to be as wilful and compliant as pet dogs. But the apparent idyll of human society is fragile here. They're like the Romans, grown decadent and soft while barbarians mass at the gates.
Our hero is young Flintreco Eltarn, and his story begins with the mysterious disappearance of his sister Amber during his clan's biggest festival. Not exactly feeling much allegiance to his family, particularly his abusive father, Flint abandons his home and sets off in search of her. Amber could have simply run away herself, or she could have been mistaken for a mutt (the whites of her eyes have a brownish hue) and taken off by slavers. That's the worst-case scenario Flint fears.
We learn a lot more about Amber's fate early on in the story than Flint does. But the search ultimately only serves as the narrative device to get Flint set off on his journey. Genetopia is really his coming-of-age saga. And, as a handful of other subplots serve to illustrate, the theme of the story is the acceptance of change. Flint abandons his clan once and for all by affiliating himself with a traveling sect called the Riverwalkers, but he never abandons his search for Amber, even when it looks increasingly futile. He has attained manhood and independence, but still knows which of his family bonds is meaningful to him. Finding out whether or not it still exists is what drives his search.
The premise is good, the setting impressively realized and immersive, and the story reads like nothing else on the shelves right now. The narrative, though, while entirely readable, is erratically paced and took a while for me to get into. Genetopia opens a little too abruptly. Amber's disappearance thrusts the story into motion before the Brooke has fully established Flint's fraternal bond to her or given us a chance to empathize with it, thus giving us an emotional stake in Amber's safety.
But we soon find out this is Flint's story rather than Flint and his sister's together. And as it progresses, we come to like him more and more, even if, after we're two-thirds of the way through, it starts to get a little old seeing him still asking every stranger he meets if they've seen his sister and being told no.
The main criticism I have is that I think Brooke has gone after the wrong audience with this book. Genetopia, with a few judicious trims of its more explicit language and sexual content, would have been a top-notch YA novel. As it is, it's an uneven adult novel. But it's one that I think will interest readers in Keith Brooke's other work, and persuade them to add him to their "watch this guy" lists. Once again, Pyr SF has done us Yanks a service, bringing some of the U.K.'s more challenging writers to our shores.