Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Genesis by Poul Anderson

Genesis by Poul Anderson
Published: Tor, 2000
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

“Imagine a future where humanity does make it to the stars, but must cease to be physically human in order to do so.  The exploration can only be undertaken by machines, and by humans—such as astronaut Christian Brannock—who allow their consciousness to be uploaded into those machines.  The universe of the far future is a web of machine consciousnesses, grown immensely powerful and complex, which communicate across the emptiness of space. 

These consciousnesses still feel concern for their origin species—humanity—and their origin planet—Earth.  When Earth’s AI, Gaia, decides to allow the planet to die, the others do not understand.  There appear to be gaps in the data she is transmitting, either by accident or design.  A smaller consciousness called Wayfarer, which contains the ancient astronaut Christian Brannock, is physically dispatched to Earth.  Through closer examination of Gaia’s collective knowledge, he must try to understand her decision—or uncover her true motives.” ~Allie

This is my final novel for WWEnd’s Grand Master Reading Challenge, and my first experience of Anderson’s writing. Poul Anderson was a highly prolific and celebrated author, whose work spanned from the first Golden Age of science fiction to the beginning of the 21st century.  I imagine his style must have changed greatly over the course of his life. I would be interested to see how Genesis, a novel from his later life, would compare to his earlier work.

My Thoughts:

From Genesis, I can tell that Anderson had a talent for writing about science in an accessible way.  Genesis contains a fair amount of true information along with its speculative elements, and Anderson imparts it with a sense of wonder and poetry.  In one example that has stuck in my mind, a young Christian Brannock scales the chronology of life down to a single year.  His thought concludes with:

“Recorded history had lasted less than one minute.  And here they were, measuring the universe, ranging the Solar System, planning missions to the stars.  Where will we be by sunrise? he wondered for a dizzying moment.” ~p. 22

Like this quote, one could say that a large amount of the novel is about the passage of time, and the dramatic changes that accompany it.  In Brannock’s scaled down ‘year’, life went from a single-celled organism to a human civilization capable of exploring beyond their home planet. Given how much humanity had accomplished in one ‘minute’, it seems impossible for us to say what we will become in even several thousand years, much less the billions that Genesis covers. The sheer massive time scale of Anderson’s story, and his poetic expression of it, invites wonder.

Unfortunately, the actual plot of the story does not always seem especially coherent.  Rather than following a continuous timeline, the story seems at first like a series of short fiction pieces.  Each piece gives a brief story of a small slice of time and space.  Many of the civilizations and characters that are introduced this way simply disappear, never to be referenced again.  It takes quite some time for Christian Brannock to come clear as the main character of the novel.  It takes even longer for a noticeable plot to emerge.  There is not much tension for most of the novel, because there just isn’t much direction or character development.  By the end, I did appreciate the thematic relevance of the one-off stories featuring minor characters—I believe the intention was to show the affect of an increasingly powerful, benevolent AI on human society.  However, I still felt that this connecting thread was too tenuous to hold the meandering story together as a novel.

Despite this complaint, the book did address some very interesting ideas.  Through the all-powerful AI’s, it explored the idea of a benevolent God who allowed suffering to exist.  This brought up questions about the importance of strife to drive technological progress and the importance of free will to keep the human mind from despair.  It also explored what constitutes personhood, and the meaning of death.  If one can generate an emulation of a human personality, and it has self-determination, then is that emulation different in any appreciable way from an actual human being?  If not, then wouldn’t shutting down that program be an act of murder?  For that matter, when a simulated personality assimilates into a larger machine consciousness, is the subsummation of the individual personality death, even though their program does continue to exist? Anderson did not provide any easy answers, perhaps because there aren’t any.  In any case, I enjoyed seeing these kinds of questions addressed through the lens of far future science fiction.

My Rating: 3/5

Genesis is a contemplative story covering a huge timescale.  It uses science fiction and near omnipotent AIs to raise many ideas that are almost theological in nature, such as the problem of pain, the definition of self, and the meaning of death.  The story is also deeply concerned with questions of free will, and the effect that an actively interfering ‘God’, even a benevolent one, would have on human society.  While I enjoyed Genesis for its sense of wonder and thoughtful consideration of these and other ideas, it left me a little cold as a novel.  It took quite some time to develop anything resembling a protagonist and a plot, and it constantly digressed into seemingly irrelevant short stories about characters and civilizations that would never be referenced again.  While these stories had thematic relevance, I didn’t feel like it was enough to hold it together as a coherent story.     


  1. I really like the premise of this, it's disappointing that it didn't quite work for you though.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I liked the premise as well, and a lot of the topics covered. I really wish it had worked better for me in terms of character & plot!