SERGEI LUKYANENKO’s sci-fi novel The Genome was first published in Russia in 1999, but 15 years later, in English translation, it’s future is still, somewhat wearisomely, our future. At least since Frankenstein and Brave New World, SF has reveled in anxieties about reproductive atrocities— nightmare visions of test-tube babies and monstrous, tormented progeny wait for us in a future forever looming and forever new.
The Genome is firmly ensconced in this genre tradition. Most of the characters are “speshs”; humans whose parents had them genetically modified in the womb to perform certain jobs — pilots, fighters, even street-sweepers. The modification is not just physical (strength, faster reflexes) but mental — the genetic code adjusts the capacity for love, the enthusiasm for hate, even a sense of job satisfaction. People are literally born into their jobs and class status; control of birth effectively erases, or at least drastically circumscribes, free will.
In the first scene of the novel, our protagonist, the pilot Alex, altruistically defends and then cares for a young girl, Kim, who is attacked on a train and then goes through a vulnerable and dangerous spesh chrysalis phase. Alex seems, in short, to be a hero — but eventually we learn that his altruism is part of his genetic programming as a space pilot, because pilots have to be prepared to sacrifice and protect their crew. This is a world in which, like Han Solo, all pilots do have a heart of gold; it’s been programmed in. Genetic engineering has ensured a genre default.
That overlapping of genetics and genre work to undermine the book’s philosophical pretensions. This isn’t Samuel Delany or Philip K. Dick or Joanna Russ, where the sci-fi pleasures — alternate worlds, space flight, super-secret spy organizations, planets exploding — are cheerfully warped, dumped, or subverted whenever they run athwart political, philosophical or existential concerns. Lukyanenko has an adventure story to tell, and the stage and its players have to conform. Kim is perhaps the most flagrant example; genetically programmed to be an unstoppable superspy, part of her psychological conditioning causes her to fall in love with Alex. He, for his part, can’t love, because pilots need to be committed first and foremost to their ships (shades of Captain Kirk.) The result is predictably clichéd; the emotionally reserved hero who has to have sex with the just-barely pubescent, smitten “strong female character” despite himself. (And yes, inevitably, another of the female crew also throws herself at Alex, because in fan service there cannot be only one.)
The Genome doesn’t really care about the genome; it cares about genre adventure. The pretense that the book is about free will teeters on the verge of self-parody — and then plunges gleefully over that verge in Part III. Following a grisly shipboard murder, the book lurches away from space opera and into cozy detective mystery, complete with Sherlock
"Sherlock Holmes puffed on his pipe and leaned back in his armchair, fixing Alex with a tenacious stare. They were sitting in Alex’ own cabin, but now he felt himself a guest…and uninvited and unwanted guest, at that."
Alex, the pilot, has been displaced as the hero by the detective — a clone based on a genetically modified detective spec named after the literary character, and true to that original down to the violin playing. Holmes “is incapable of human emotions,” so you could argue that he is also demonstrating the problem of free will and the horror of genetic engineering gone awry — but come on. The whole thing is ludicrous.
Holmes doesn’t demonstrate genetic engineering gone awry. He demonstrates that Lukyanenko wants to write Holmes fan fiction. The great detective pops up because it’s fun to have the great detective pop up. We’re not in thrall to chromosomes here; we’re in thrall to tropes. Which is, I think, Lukyanenko’s point. Genetic programming in his novel may not be a convincing philosophical concern, but it is a neatly goofy metaphor for genre programming. Partway through the book, Alex discovers a formula to turn off his own psychological genetic code; as a result, he is able to love. Or, more immediately, he has gained “the ability not to love”, a recognition of the absence at his heart. Abruptly, he is not a stoic, altruistic space hero, but an angst-ridden lonely soul. Instead he realizes that his communion with the ship is “A forgery. An illusion. A surrogate for love. A cynical fake.” It’s like he has seen the emptiness at the genre core, the hollowness of the manly hero tropes which have so far propped him up. The genre narrative has gone. What can replace it?
The answer is simple: another genre narrative. It’s soon after Alex drinks the formula that the book does an about-face into detection and from there slides into the (often related, thank you Ms. Sayres) genre of romance. Alex falls in love at first sight with Holmes’ (female) Dr. Watson, leading her to exclaim wonderingly, “A spesh, a pilot-spesh, who is capable of love!”
The hoary sci-fi altruistic pilot with no time for silly feelings is replaced by the hoary romance guy who finally learns to love. Alex gives Sherlock Holmes a magic dose of the fluid too, inspiring him, the novel suggests, to understand human emotions and maybe get a new job. The solution to the predestination of genetic programming is to switch genres; free-will is picking up a different novel. That could be seen as a tongue-in-cheek triumph, perhaps — a happy ending for everyone.
But that happy ending seems oddly flat. Dr. Watson isn’t any more three-dimensional than Kim; if anything, she’s even less defined. We know almost nothing about her, and her relationship with Alex is simply stated rather than examined or realized. For that matter, Alex himself is largely a blank. At one point Holmes reveals psychologically penetrating details of his character, and you think, wow, I didn’t know that about him. But it doesn’t go anywhere, and eventually you realize that the details are just there because Holmes needs to reveal penetrating details. They don’t have anything to do with Alex turning into a person. He remains at the end what he was at the beginning; a sequence of mildly variable stock tropes.
One of those stock tropes is personal growth and happy ending, and so the conclusion of the novel is a vision of transcendent possibility. Alex and Watson make love in the grass, and the camera swoops up into the beautiful sky above.
"The woman’s naked body, her scent, her arms, her timid, wandering kisses… The sky covered them with thousands of drifting lotuses— a living and tender blanket. If you pull it aside, there won’t be only the scorching light of the white sun, there will also be stars. A whole sky full of stars."
The thudding symbolic meaning here is that free will exists; Alex has transcended his genetic programming, and now he has all the possible futures in the world spread out before him. But a subtler, less cheerful message is that Alex is going nowhere. The sex panning to stars is a variation of sex panning to fireworks; an unbelievably tired juxtaposition. And those stars opening up aren’t freedom; they’re just a revelation that we’re still in the sci-fi book, despite our genre detours. Space is the final frontier — a frontier Alex can’t pass. He’s still in the stupid narrative, weighted down by Hollywood romance and pulp sf cliché. The stars aren’t a place he can go wandering in; they’re the ceiling of his limited, indifferently written world.
What determines Alex is not his DNA, but the story he’s in. Lukyanenko isn’t imagining a future where we’ll all be slaves to our genetic code. He’s imagining a present in which familiar pulp stories — the noble savior, the genius detective, love at first sight — lead us from bland set piece to bland set piece in our own lives. Alex swallows a magic potion to liberate him from his code, but the received narrative about that code has always already swallowed him first. He’s not a free man, but a trope. He can get out of the genome, maybe, but there’s no way out of The Genome.