Bernard Beckett, 41 (or possibly 42), is a New Zealand high school teacher who has written eight (or is it nine?) novels for young adults. Accounts, to put it mildly, vary: Beckett is not exactly well-known outside his native land, a lamentable state of affairs—at least for foreigners—that’s liable to change very rapidly. Genesis, Beckett’s whatever number novel, written in 2006 and now available across the English-speaking world, is superb: a taut, thrilling, thought-provoking dystopia, just perfect for intellectually curious teens, and pretty damn good for adults too. And virtually all it consists of is conversation, a Socratic question-and-answer session between Anaximander, a young candidate for her society’s ruling Academy, and her examiners.
It takes place in late 21st-century New Zealand, now re-named the Republic after a reforming leader, Plato. It doesn’t need any further name, because it’s the last functioning state on earth, the rest having fallen to environmental catastrophe, nuclear war and endless waves of plague. The Republic has maintained itself at a cost: soldiers manning a giant seawall shoot down any refugees approaching by boat or plane; there is no individual liberty and all citizens function within their assigned roles.
Then comes a new Adam, young Adam Foote, the subject of Anax’s historian’s thesis, and the first Republican in decades to act independently. He ends up imprisoned, sentenced to become the human participant in an experiment with a new form of artificial intelligence named Artfink. Anax’s increasingly off-kilter conversation with the three Academy examiners reconstruct Adam and Artfink’s interaction, and raise millennia-old, never-to-be-solved questions about meaning and consciousness: what, if anything, really separates us from animals and machines?
Genesis is beautifully written, with an eye-popping conclusion, but what really makes it stand out is its bottom-line difference from other, and more famous, dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldor Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. The difference lies not in the how of our fate—human greed and folly pretty much sums that up—but in the why of it. Most dystopias are dire warnings, allegories of now, that implicitly argue there’s still time to change. In Beckett’s novel, disaster takes on a kind of tragic inevitability, leading humanity down a path that’s as strangely triumphant as it is squalid. As Anax says of those men who made one particularly fateful decision: “Circumstances conspired against them.”