Book Review: The Genome by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Liv Bliss)

11 Jan

Sergei Lukyanenko’s name gained popular recognition outside of his native Russia with the translations of his fantasy/horror novels, Night Watch and Day Watch, and their equally successful film adaptations and remakes. It’s not surprising then to see reader interest in translations of his other work, including his science fiction.

However, when it comes to The Genome, diving in simply due to author recognition is not advised. This is a novel where it pays to know not just the author and plot, but also a little about its style and designs. Lukyanenko intended The Genome to be playful, encoding in the final pages a hidden message that translates as: “This novel is a parody of space opera and cyberpunk. The author values your sense of humor.”

Translation is a tricky business and the subtle nature of Lukyanenko’s parody, with only a hidden explanation of tongue-in-cheek intent, makes it easy to mistake The Genome for a straight-faced science fiction adventure in a Golden Age vein. Potentially catching a reader off guard, The Genome contains not only the excitement and charm of classic science fiction, but exaggerates the clichés and faults of (mostly) bygone years, including their misogynistic tone and other cultural insensitivities. It is easy to misread intent and where the parody begins or ends. Even if the satirical play is realized, enjoyment of the adventure and mystery of the plot may be lost to the sensitive.

The Genome by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Genome begins when spaceship pilot Alex Romanov is released from a hospital with a newly regenerated body following a terrible accident during his previous job. In this future universe, much of humanity is genetically engineered to serve specific unique roles. These biologically-idealized ‘speshes’ serve their programmed role above all other concerns and have significant advantages over regular humans, but lack choice, stuck in predestined jobs with no hope of change.

As a pilot spesh searching new employment after his recovery, Alex discovers a generous job opportunity to serve as pilot/captain for a secretive mission. Alex has little choice but to accept this too-good-to-be-true offer after he uses his last remaining funds coming to the aid of a mysterious, young teenage girl named Kim O’Hara, whose genetic programming has just come into fruition, off the grid, through a traumatic and violent metamorphosis.

Alex is given the atypical freedom of assembling his own crew from the handful of people who happen to be on this galactic crossroads of a planet looking for employment. Eventually finding a spesh for each job required, Alex finally learns the details of their mission: transporting two alien representatives through a tour of human-controlled space. The problem for Alex is that the ship’s doctor belongs to a group of humans with a xenophobic hatred of aliens engineered into her being. Compounding this, each other member of the crew has some flawed trait that makes them an unpredictable, volatile risk, including newly matured Kim, who Alex discovers is on the run and in possession of an incredibly rare and valuable crystal.

When one of the two aliens the ship is assigned to transport is found brutally murdered, Alex and the detective spesh clone who arrives to investigate must rush to discover the killer before the aliens’ retribution escalates into interstellar war between species.

If given a more serious tone, a science fiction set-up like this plot could be used to explore such concepts as individuality, free-will, class relations, racism, and colonialism within the murder mystery context. In its parody (or perhaps pastiche – it is never quite clear if Lukyanenko mocks or celebrates space operas of bygone years), The Genome doesn’t put much energy into these kinds of explorations. Instead, its focus is on making the characters and their behaviors fit into science fiction (or mystery) novel stereotypes, thereby coming off a lot like a space opera mashup in the style of the 1976 film Murder By Death written by Neil Simon that did similar things with the mystery genre and its iconic characters.

In The Genome, these spesh characters are nothing more than genetically-engineered personifications of varied genre stereotypes. Alex the pilot, for instance, is the quintessential masculine protagonist, ready to save the woman in distress at great personal cost, eager to embark into liaisons of passion, but unable to actually love anything more than his ship and his job. As Murder By Death has its play on the culturally-insensitive Charlie Chan or politically incorrect Sam Spade, so too does The Genome delight in the male fantasy fulfillment seen with Alex and his relationship with the female characters or in playing with character reactions to a homosexual character.

The adventure of the plot is a fun ride, and the basic speculation behind it is intriguing. But the tongue-in-cheek approach of Lukyanenko isn’t played for laughs, or at least doesn’t translate effectively. Fans of old school science fiction who don’t mind its shortcomings at the expense of a fun plot and a bit of mystery could still find this a worthwhile read.

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