Genetopia, by Keith Brooke

Keith Brooke – Genetopia
Prometheus Books, 2006, 304 pp, $25, 1-59102-333-5

Genetopia is set in a low-tech world of genetic engineering gone bonkers, and it is convincing precisely because it’s so low tech. The simplest effects available to the people of this world are way in advance of anything we can do now, but they are still very hit and miss. You expose people to changing vectors, maybe pray a little, and see what happens. But under such conditions, armed with nothing more than folklore and traditional knowledge and instinctive skill, you can achieve much. Someone from 2006 wouldn’t last five minutes in this world where even an innocent walk in the forest could result in on-the-spot mutation, but our distant descendants handle it without thinking because this is all they have ever known.

Distinctions between animal and vegetable are fluid in Genetopia; distinctions between the different levels of humanity are even more so. At the top of the tree are the True, pure human genetic stock. At the bottom are the mutts with a mostly inbred devotion to their True masters. But in between are the more ambiguous Lost, who have somehow changed, inside or out. Even being born of True stock isn’t the guarantee it ought to be because you can come out Lost, or become Lost later. It’s never made clear here how you know someone is Lost, but the True do when they see them. Or say they do. And if there’s someone who is just borderline, and you fear them and want them gone, then passing them off as Lost and selling them into slavery is very easy.

Flint is a young man whose younger sister Amber meets just that fate. Nominally, Genetopia is the story of Flint’s search for her. More accurately, it’s the story of someone with fixed notions having to survive in this world where everything is so changeable. Your humanity is what is in your heart, not your genes, and it’s mutations of the heart that should be feared. Though Brooke is far too subtle to state it in such crass Trek terms.

Flint does comes across as a bit bland – his search for Amber becomes obsession but never had any real passion behind it to start with. He looks for his sister and shelters a guilty secret, and at first that seems to be it. Every now and then Brooke teases us with a chapter describing what is happening to Amber, each one told from the point of view of an observer character, and it is these one-off characters who are vivid and well defined. But maybe Flint himself needs to be more low-key so that the changes in him are gradual and insidious, just like some of the mutations that everyone fears so much. The other characters are quirks and oddities of Genetopia’s world, just as much as the scenes and the strangenesses that Flint encounters, working their effect on Flint and on the reader alike.