The Genome: A Novel - Sergei Lukyanenko

**Note: this review is of an uncorrected advanced reader copy. While the included quotes may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they are characteristic of the novel as a whole.**


How much can we tinker with our talents and inclinations before we encroach upon free will? This is the question that The Genome seeks to answer. It’s a complex and fascinating problem. A pity that such a fine concept was clad in such tawdry garb.


Science fiction explores our imaginations, but it also reveals our limits. If you’ve ever read classic science fiction, then you’ve encountered this phenomenon: a centuries-future world with hovercrafts and androids, but where people still smoke and use payphones, where women still wear tight dresses and take secretarial jobs, where white upper-class Americans dominate all they see. Contemporary science fiction is surely just as myopic, but our vision is too clouded to see its limitations. Unfortunately, I think The Genome’s blindspots were a little too gratingly obvious.


The Genome takes place in a far-future world where the empire of humanity has expanded outward to new planets. Humans have encountered, warred with, and eventually constructed a tenuous peace with other alien races. The most dramatic change in humanity is the changes within. Expectant parents now have the choice to make their child into a “spesh,” a genetically-modified specialist in a particular occupation. Alex’s parents decided to make him a pilot. He is endowed with supernaturally fast reflexes, phenomenal balance, and the ability to bond with the “soul” of the ships he pilots. But while his specialty granted him tremendous skills, it also took away his ability to love, substituting an eternal passion for the stars. Alex has no sooner been released from the hospital when he runs into new trouble in the form of a young female warrior-spesh. And then there’s the suspiciously well-timed and tempting offer as ship’s captain. Alex knows his new position is too good to be true, and now he’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop.


Science fiction is all about transposing our prejudices into a different space so that we can examine them from a new angle. The Genome certainly tries to do this. It introduces bigotry against clones, against aliens, against speshes, against normals. But the book is also enmeshed in casual racism, sexism, and homophobia, and none of these brands of prejudice are confronted within the novel.


As one major theme of the book is Alex’s quest for love, the rather problematic portrayal of female characters is glaringly evident. To put it frankly, this book is such a male fantasy that I felt a bit out of place. All of the human female characters express interest in the protagonist, and more than one take it a good deal further. Take Kim, the female warrior-spesh that Alex picks up in the beginning of the novel. Kim provides a perfect example of informed abilities. In the opening scene, she beats up a gang trying to rape her, just in time to fall helplessly into Alex’s arms and transform into a needy damsel-in-distress. For the rest of the novel, she is immature and kittenish, described as “highly emotional, amorous, devoted,” and varying her wide-eyed adoration of Alex with lustful attempts to seduce him. As one character puts it to Alex, she’s just a “Poor little girl, watches you with adoration, follows you around like a puppy.”


Honestly, the whole book felt to me like a continual, low-level assault on feminism.  A few examples of the sorts of comments that litter the text:

“Janet was already bustling around in there. Alex happily noted her willingness to get snacks ready. Had Janet been a feminist, no one could have gotten her into a kitchen, even at gunpoint.”

“She may have had the same intentions, or perhaps she did it out of every woman’s ineradicable need to look as seductive as possible.”

[Alex’s treatment of one of his crew] “[He] slapped her on her behind so that she let out a happy little squeal.”

“‘Traditionally, female crew members do not abide by this rule [of standing] and a salute the captain’s arrival with a nod...or a charming smile.’ And she turned around, demonstrating that smile to Alex.”

“‘I’ll do anything you wish, anything,’ she whispered, helping him undress. ‘Anything. Just love me, you’ll see, no one will ever love you like me, no one… only love me…”

“Somehow outer space always increased women’s longing for same-sex love, and Alex would have gotten jealous...had he felt more than just a friendly attraction to Kim.”

“Women shouldn’t be proud of their battle wounds. Without the tooth marks, you’d be much more attractive.”

All the incidental female characters are objectified and transformed into caricatures of their gender. Women in any vaguely nontraditional roles aren’t referred to by their jobs unless they are prefixed by “girl-”, and women tend to be referred to as “girls” rather than “women.” “Spiders”--technical accountant types-- are referred to as “she-spiders.” Kim is referred to as a “girl-fighter” rather than a “fighter.” The women run around “bursting into sobs,” having “hysterical outbursts,” and making eyes at Alex. I got the distinct impression that the far-too-frequent sex scenes were making the author salivate.


To be clear, I don’t think that building a sexist world is a problem, especially if the author goes on to construct interesting, dynamic female characters within the constraints of the world. But in this case, we are told that equality was won, yet the characters contradict it with every word and action. The book doesn’t just fail the Bechdel test; it does so epically. One of the few girls-only moments:

“We were … we were gossipping, you know. Girl to girl!” She looked at Alex again. He nodded, catching on. No, it wasn’t sex, after all. If there was anything erotic about it, it was in some minimal, trivial form--crying on each other’s shoulder, patting each other, maybe a little kissing.

They had been discussing him [Alex]!”

Because that’s what women do when the men aren’t around, obviously.

To put it frankly, this book's portrayal of women left me, as a female reader, feeling rather out of place.

Some more:

“Alex unhurredly took a seat between Janet and Kim. After a moment’s reflection, he threw his arms around both women’s shoulders.”

[Alex’s response to another man asking if he’s involved with one of his crew] “There’s just one thing, Xang. The girl’s in love with me. But I won’t be upset if she chooses you as a more appropriate object of affection.”

The whole thing was simply tiresome. Every single female in the novel throws herself at the protagonist. If you don’t happen to share the author’s fantasies, it’s trite and tiresome. The “tragedy” of the book is that he can’t fall in love with one of them? Really? I still can’t get over the fact that he started a relationship with a vulnerable child.

And then there’s the rape scene. Alex purposefully put Kim in that situation. Her near rape was all part of the plan, and afterwards, she’s completely fine, just as everyone expects. Riiiight. That entire scene was as insensitive as it was simply sick.

(show spoiler)


And as for the sexuality bias? Well, apart from the "women-in-space-go-lesbian" quote from above, here's another example:

“Captain, no one treats women more tenderly and gently than we gays!”

 The single token black character, Janet, comes from a warlike planet called Eben (yep, as in “ebony.”) We are reminded repeatedly of her countrymen’s primitive savagery, often paired with references to Janet’s race. A few statistics: by my count, there were 20 mentions of her skin color, 10 references to her as “the black woman,” and 5 as “the black lady.” For comparative purposes, I noticed zero references to any of the other characters by race outside of an initial description. How could a future broadened by new worlds and new species be so fettered by the racism of our past? 

The core idea of the book--an exploration as to how our social origins affect our agency, is fascinating. I loved the tensions between the speshes and the normals. But honestly? I think Myke Cole does a better job with the latter, and the book is too beset by its own unacknowledged prejudices to effectively tackle the former. If you’re not going to be thrown by the types of issues I mentioned, then sure, maybe this book will be fun. But as for me, I want my scifi to stretch my thinking, not assault me with bigotry. I want to look forward, not back.


~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Open Road Integrated Media, in exchange for my honest review.~~