Plato’s Politeia (c. 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) describes a perfect society ruled by philosopher-kings who are authoritarian, coldly rational, and inflexible. It is a thought experiment on Plato’s part, an opportunity to examine the relationships in political culture. In Genesis, Bernard Beckett repeats the experiment. He creates a society in the Republic’s image, but with futuristic twists, as a human attempt to create a secure utopia is transformed into a tyranny of androids.
The plot of Genesis involves a young candidate who takes an examination to qualify for admittance into the future society’s ruling body, The Academy. The plot is clever and deeply ironic, but the true pleasure of the book lies less in complication and resolution than in the philosophical disquisition that constitutes the examination and the insights it provides into human motivations. Beckett’s novella is a book that every budding intellectual ought to read, if only to learn of the pitfalls of thought.
The examination takes place on Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) in the late twenty-first century. Young Anaximander, a brilliant student, must face a trio of examiners for a four-hour exam divided into one-hour intervals. Accordingly, the novella is divided into seven sections: four exam hours and three breaks. At the outset, Beckett allows readers little information about Anaximander or her nation, revealing only that few citizens progress from compulsory schooling to the examination and that those who do are tested on a subject of the candidate’s own choosing. Anaximander has chosen to discuss Adam Forde, who lived from 2058 to 2077 and was a central figure in the nation’s history.
The first hour of the exam covers the history of the twenty-first century. It is a dismal story, cursorily told, but an important theme emerges: Because of environmental degradation, international conflict, and strife within nations, fear and superstition became endemic; reason and restraint were forgotten. General war began mid-century. Two years later, bioengineered plagues were released that decimated humanity and crippled civilization.
In an attempt to escape the turmoil, a man named Plato established the Republic in 2051. Its motto “forward toward the past” bespoke its citizens’ fear of falling prey to the disorder outside its borders. Essentially, the Republic is a paranoid, if high-minded, fascist state. It is dedicated to eliminating what it believes are the five great threats to order: impurity of breeding, impurity of thought, indulgence of the individual, commerce, and “The Outsider.” The Republic held together from fear, and for decades it was successful. Every citizen belonged to one of four classes, to which they were assigned after a reading of their genome at birth: laborers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. Those infants deemed unsuitable for any class were “terminated.” Although heterosexual relations were encouraged and births carefully planned, men and women lived in separate dormitories. The Great Sea Fence and high-tech defenses protected the Republic’s islands. Everyone who approached from the outside was killed without any attempt at communications: The society was literally and figuratively insular.
Adam Forde is an important figure in Aotearoan history because he was among the most promising of the philosopher class and he rebelled. Despite his brilliance, a troubled childhood caused Forde to be expelled from the philosopher class into the soldier class. At age seventeen, while manning a post at the Great Sea Fence, he murdered a fellow soldier so that, against all orders, he could rescue an outsider, a girl named Eve who was drifting toward shore in a dilapidated boat. He hid her in a cave and fed her until the authorities arrived and arrested him.
During the first hour of the examination, Anaximander addresses Forde’s motivation. Obsessed with his story, Anaximander presents an interpretation of his behavior that varies from what every citizen learns in school. She brushes off The Academy’s official explanation, as well as popular conspiracy theories. Forde, she insists, acted out of the impulse of empathy. The examiner surprises Anaximander by asking whether Forde was right to act as he did. She is confused and gives an ambiguous answer. The period ends, and she mulls the fact that she lied to the examiners. She believes Adam was not wrong. Another candidate in the room warns her darkly that the examiners know much more than appearances suggest. It is the first of many clues that trouble lies ahead for her.
The second hour of the examination concerns Forde’s trial. The philosopher class,...
(The entire section is 1951 words.)