Volume 25, Number 01, Fall, 2007


By Keith Brooke

Pyr Books, 2006, $25.00
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
September 2007

In Keith Brooke’s novel, Genetopia, we learn that the propensity to enslave one’s own kind and find ways to rationalize that slavery knows few bounds. Brooke’s imagined society might exist in the far future or perhaps some parallel world, or even an entirely non-human setting. It appears to be set after some cataclysmic event where technology collapsed and humanity was pushed to small settlements outside vast forests. Genetic breeding, however, is a main feature of this society, although performed more as an art than a science. The lucky guild in charge of genetic change manages pools of genetic muck into which they herd their victims. This muck alone carries the ability to change people, both without and within, though no one really knows ahead of time the extent of the change.

In a manner which calls to mind aspects of the antebellum South and the slavery of Africans, one class manages the process of sending another class of humans into slavery and trading the new slaves. Seemingly all communities deal in slaves, and consider the process part of normal life. The reshaped beings are no longer seen as humans, even former kin (much like the children of slaves and owners remained slaves and could be sold like property). Any unchanged human that even bears the hint of being susceptible to change (a nice way to stifle dissent) can be sold away or forced through the changing process.

This casual disregard for life and liberty seems alien to modern sensibilities, but really was not so unusual a few years ago. Even today in several areas across the globe, slavery still exists—in many parts of Africa, Arab lands, in parts of Asia, and even in Eastern Europe (if one considers the illegal sex trade among collapsed Eastern European nations). Consider also the millions of Jews slaughtered a few decades ago in a civilized Western European nation.

Genetopia’s protagonist, Flint, a young teenage boy, wanders through the novel searching for his missing sister. Signs point to her either undergoing a forced change, or sold to a trader for the same purpose elsewhere. Flint’s constant questions about the whereabouts of his sister sets him at odds with his family, who might have played a role in her disappearance or at least care little about her fate.

As a consequence of his quest, Flint travels deep into the wilderness and to several other communities, where genetic change vectors inhabit the flora and some humans even embrace the idea of change as essential to humanity. In the woods, wild creatures oppose the humans, and rumors fly of organized groups of changed beings raising an army against the cities. In order to survive, Flint must learn more about himself as well as the society that fosters the current slavery. He undergoes changes within as he comes to understand more of his world. Throughout it all, he never gives up on the hope of finding his sister and what happened to her.

Genetopia reminded me greatly of Neal Barrett, Jr’s Through Darkest America and Dawn’s Early Light. Both feature a brother in search of lost sisters, each likely enslaved. The novels all feature bizarre societies that remain very similar to our own, each with their own justifications for their slave-based ecosystems.

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