Genus, by Jonathan Trigell, is a dark and political look at a possible future Britain. In Genus, advances in genetic engineering have rubbed all the rough edges off of humanity. Intelligence, ambition and creativity can all be programmed in before birth - as well as good looks, great hair and striking cheekbones. Many diseases are finally thwarted as well, run off the pitch by genetic countermeasures.
The catch? It is bloody expensive. Most families spend their entire lives saving, borrowing and scrambling to get their children the best pre-natal enhancements possible. Even the most basic anti-disease package isn't available to everyone. There's some token opposition from guilty liberals, but society is now firmly divided into the gene-enriched haves and the "Unimproved" have-nots.
The Unimproved mostly congregate in London's King's Cross area - now known as "The Kross". The government has relaxed many of the vice laws in the area, so that the neighborhood's denizens are at least allowed to drink, drug and sex themselves into distraction. It is a very small consolation - the Kross is riddled with crime, corruption, rioting and violence. The area is ruled by an extremely tight-knit family of cloned ganglords and order is maintained by heavy-handed police thugs.
Genus follows the maneuverings of a half-dozen connected denizens of the Kross. Holman is a dwarf, and a physical outcast even amongst the Unimproved. Despite having a rich mother on the outside (she's a wealthy model, the last "Miss Natural" pageant winner), Holman's determined to make his own way as an artist. If he could stop drinking so much, possibly he might. Crick is a former soldier. He was blinded in a military operation, but still manages to cling to his dream of becoming a writer. (He also drinks too much.) Gunt is a nasty, brutish character - but you wouldn't know that to look at him. With his perfect features, Gunt obviously has the best genes on the police force. His very appearance would be a ticket to success, except that he enjoys where he is - the goonish mayhem of working the streets of the Kross.
Over the course of Genus, the connections between these disparate characters become more and more clear. Events in the Kross - and throughout London - become more and more panicked. Gunt's search for a serial killer leads him to an even nastier sort of crime. Crick's search through his own memories also uncovers a piece of the greater puzzle. Holman serves as as a shambling catalyst for the book's events - he blunders from murder to riot to worse, as he's invariably caught in the center of things.
Genus is unsubtle in its politics. The rise of the genetically-enhanced is twinned with a new, authoritarian government known only as "The Right". With the middle-class-and-up maintained by the power of their super-human DNA, the government has pushed through a number of initiatives that would, in any other circumstances, seem like a social utopia. Free education, for example - the death of private schooling and university fees. Of course, the elite have the genetic advantage, so the result is merely the poor paying the school fees for the rich. As the events escalate in Genus, the Unimproved are painted as a cultural and social underclass - combining the worst fears of immigration and racism. The Unimproved are coming here, stealing our jobs and, god forbid, pissing in our genepool. Mr. Trigell does an excellent job in painting a particularly grim sort of future. It doesn't feel wholly plausible, but that's not the point - Mr. Trigell uses the extreme hyperbole to articulate real issues.
The mysterious plot at the center of Genus is a properly constructed (if familiar) conspiracy theory. Mr. Trigell shows how it unfolds from the eyes of his many different characters, each possessing a distinct view of one solitary step in the overall scheme. Major events are poetically described, with Mr. Trigell jumping from one character to another in sets of short, highly-visual sentences. The message is clear: everything is connected.
Conversely, Genus' weakness is this pathological need to have everything in the book significantly connected. Each character, no matter how minor, is critically intertwined with both the overall scheme. More than that, unbeknown to them, everyone seems to be blood relatives or long-lost childhood friends. There's a certain amount of literary license involved, but the latter third of the book is one increasingly soap operatic revelation after another. Gene enhancement may be required after all - there are apparently only six people in London.
I unintentionally read Genus back to back with Constantine Fitzgibbon's When the Kissing Had to Stop (1960). Both stories take contemporary issues and explode them into regional apocalypses that overthrow the comfy British way of life. Although just as implausible as Fitzgibbon's tale of Soviet invasion, Genus is much more beautifully written. Genus is also written more as a novel. When the Kissing Had to Stop is dully practical, with all the characters as meaningless, interchangeable drones, serving as witnesses to the tide of history. In contrast, Genus is possessed with more literary ambition; the over-arching events of the book are self-importantly linked to the actions of the book's main characters. Whatever the intention, the latter come across as more important.
Genus is an elegantly written, bleakly exaggerated look between the haves and have-nots. Mr. Trigell uses the bullhorn of science fiction to call out the communal hypocrisy of society. Whatever scientific advance that humanity creates with improvement in mind, Genus argues that we'll never leave our selfish instincts behind.
Genus is published 21 July 2011 from Corsair (Constable & Robinson).