Genus by Jonathan Trigell (Corsair; 288 pages; £7.99).
Gretchen Gerbi, an elderly woman who lives in a London apartment complex, busies herself by playing an old video game called “Civilization.” Gretchen has not gotten far into the game. Her tribe is still quite primitive. She knows it is not the way to win the game, but she directs her people to farm and form settlements rather than make war on other tribes. For Gretchen, Civilization is just a way to pass the time. She never really succeeds because the game crashes when her power dims. “After rebooting, it’s like a plague has wiped out half your people,” she laments, “all the achievements and population growth you’ve made since your last save have been lost.”
She sounds like any elderly lady in any city, right? Did I mention Gretchen keeps a spider with ten-inch mandible fangs and three-foot-long legs who she calls Bojangles? A spider that spins silk for her that she sells on the side? Gretchen loves the spider. She manages an apartment building in London’s King’s Cross (The Kross), a ghetto filled with the Unimproved lower classes. No, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore…er, present-day London.
We are in the world of the brilliant and talented novelist Jonathan Trigell. Trigell, a British author, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2004, the Waverton Good Read Award, and the inaugural World Book Day Prize in 2008 for his first novel Boy A. Genus is his third novel. In the book, Trigell turns to speculative dystopian fiction set in a future and chilling London.
No one calls “The Kross” King’s Cross anymore since it “sounds antiquated and strange,” Trigell writes. There is no longer a king, you see. “Once the royal family began genetically enhancing, the utter absurdity of bloodline head of state became obvious.”
Like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, Trigell explores science, medicine, biology, morality, and religion. New breakthroughs occur everyday. What was once considered science fiction or pure fantasy actually happens; this is our reality. Test-tube babies, surrogacy, living to 110 years old, gene therapy, mapping the human genome, selecting a child’s eye color, and even finding out an unborn child’s genetic abnormalities–these are not the stuff of fiction. They have already happened.
So Trigell’s premise is not so wild then. In the not-too-distant future, scientists began “improving” people. A child could be bred for warfare with all of the genes of warriors. Likewise, a baby could be created to rule over others or to be a scientist. If a man or woman was unhappy in his or her present circumstances, don’t blame the employer, him or herself, or even the government. Lay the blame on the parents for not having enough money to give their child a great future. Because money is what determines one’s future lot in life. The more your parents pay for you the better your life will be, the better your education, the better your career. Sex for procreation is outlawed; when it happens, the offspring are “unimproved,” ugly, and scorned. These inhabit The Kross.
The future is bleak but intriguing in Trigell’s story. The government has banned religion, as it promotes terrorism. Opiates are the “opiates of the masses.” An alcoholic drink called synth and drugs are very popular, as they make the Unimproved forget.
Trigell tells the story from multiple perspectives in suspenseful, alternating chapters, giving us a view into the lives of those Improved and Unimproved. A few characters stand head and shoulders above the rest of Trigell’s narrators. Holman, a dwarf, particularly fascinated me. Holman is an artist with a rather shocking lineage. His mother, Adele Nicole, was a religious cultist and then a model. Adele Nicole was the last “Miss Natural” and caught the eye of a very important man.
Another especially interesting character is Crick, Holman’s friend. Crick once fought in the Caliphate Wars and was injured so badly he is now blind. He gives us some history of what got England into this in the first place. Spain, Portugal, North Africa, most of France and Asia, and Arabia all became one. They became the Caliphate. Refugees from these war-torn countries fled to England. Population growth ballooned; terrorism increased exponentially; crime spiked; unemployment shot up; homeless people flooded the streets; wars killed countless English people and drained the economy. There is a lesson here, Trigell warns from between the lines. Trigell gives a voice to the disenfranchised Unimproved in his book. They are crying out to be heard.
Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose in The Kross. A detective is on the trail. But a deeper, darker force may be at work. Trigell keeps the surprises coming, and the shocker at the end was one I never saw coming.
Genus is a masterful work of dystopian speculative fiction. You may not have heard of Trigell, but he definitely deserves your attention. London will be in the public eye over the next few weeks. As you watch the 2012 Olympics, think what a future dystopian London might resemble. Better yet, read Trigell’s Genus for yourself. But be warned: the future is not pretty. You can’t help but ask youself: “How good are your genes?”