There is an eternal war in the world of books. Two forces line up against each other, slugging it out for supremacy. Both sides have champions, fearlessly battling to promote their cause, but it’s a fight nobody can win. The conflict? Literary vs genre fiction.
I’m perhaps not qualified to comment on the subject, certainly there are people who would say that I’m not, but I read a lot of fiction, and nearly all of it calls itself one or the other. Clearly I set some store in these categories. Looking at the tags of books I’ve reviewed this year. 21 are literary fiction and 27 are either SciFi or Fantasy, so-called genre fiction. Not very many are both. I use the terms freely, yet the distinction feels meaningless. Some books are good, others are dull, some are throwaway. Many are inspirational. Books are vital; they can change your world, and, when they do, labels are pointless.
This has been brought into focus by the last two books I have (attempted to) read. The first was feted by the literati, tipped for a Booker; a thick tome with a story that spans several decades. I managed 170 odd pages before giving up, bored out of my tiny mind. The other book was slender, coincidentally just over 170 pages. In that same number of pages, it made me angry, it made me gasp, it made me think, it even made me question the very idea of humanity. It was science fiction.
A Stranger’s Child by Adam Hollingshurst opens in a wealthy home. Its players are people of privilege; peers and poets. The opening section details two friends returning home after a term at Cambridge, one is a poet, both are gay. Indeed, it appears to be the novel’s central contention, that every man in the ruling classes is gay. This is stupid.
Other startling revelations include upper class society is bound by convention, and that Edwardian women led unfulfilled lives and were treated badly by the men in their lives. Sheesh. Claims to literary excellence perhaps stem from long and excruciating descriptions of inanimate objects. Rather than making me feel like I was reading a novel of great import, it’s more like the dullest episode of Antiques Roadshow ever made.
Structurally the novel appears to have been given the sort editorial freedom that only comes with having previously won a literary prize. The abrupt transition from part one to part two seems to be saying, ‘come on reader, catch up, work out what’s going on. I’m so clever and you should swoon at my deliberate opacity’. Well, if I was the slightest bit interested in your characters or story I might. When it became evident the mysterious and enigmatic ‘Revel’ was another dull clichéd stereotype, the book went down, never to be opened again.
Yet the critics absolutely loved it. It somehow ticks all the boxes that are required for literary greatness. Genesis by Bernard Beckett on the other hand seems to have garnered no mainstream literary criticism whatsoever, apart from a fabulous review in the Guardian by the equally fabulous YA author Patrick Ness. No doubt the fact that it is YA AND science fiction preclude it from entering literary circles, but it is magnificent from first page to last, and poses its readers deep philosophical questions about life and the way it is governed.
The set up of Genesis is slightly peculiar. It is, in essence, the transcript of an elite academy’s entrance exam. Anax is sitting a four hour oral test, to justify her inclusion amongst her nation’s elite. We learn that the world has been ravaged by war, plague and uncontrolled climate change. Only the foresight of an energy billionaire saved New Zealand. By quarantining the islands, humankind continued, but at what price?
‘The Republic’ was constructed with survival in mind. Individualism is considered to be the root of the Earth’s decent into anarchy, and as such it is crushed. The population is divided into categories, each person given their role. Nuclear families no longer exist, each population type is responsible for raising its own. The Philosophers are the highest order; it is they who decide what function each person should be assigned. Only those put through the Academy can rise to be Philosophers.
Anax’s specialism for her exam is the life of revolutionary Adam Bode. Adam’s individualism led him to save the life of young girl whose boat washed up on the Republic’s shores. He should have terminated her on sight, but he could not. Through testimony and discussion with the Examiner, Anax discusses what she thinks about Adam and what his motivation might have been. From the outset there is the sense that Adam irrevocably altered the the Republic’s status quo. Arguably, Genesis is about Adam spawning a new society.
The most interesting sections of this discussion revolve around Adam’s time spent with a self-teaching robot. In a few short pages Beckett dissects and analyses what makes us human. What is sentience? At what point is something alive? He also asks questions about state control and then role of religion in a technologically advanced society. It is a fascinating ethical and moral discourse.
The novel’s unusual structure, does sometimes impede the narrative flow, but from start to finish Genesis is a compelling story, told with a brutal economy. The novel’s conclusion will leave readers amazed and outraged in equal measure. It will also have them pondering life and humanity long after they have finished reading.
This, for me, is what fiction should do. Hollingshurst’s story may have been dressed nicely but it offered no new insights about life, past, present or future. Beckett on the hand challenges preconceptions, and forces his readers to think about why the world is the way it is. Genesis is a wonderful novel, that everybody over the age of 14 should read. 1-0 to genre fiction? Maybe, but the real winners are the people who read Bernard Beckett’s wonderful novel.