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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Origin: a tale of immortality

Deep in the rain forests of South America there is a secret laboratory complex that is devoted to a single project, and the result of that project is a girl named Pia. All of their work has led to the ‘creation’ of Pia, who is the first in what the scientists hope is nothing less than the complete re-engineering of the human species. And what, exactly, is so special about Pia? She is immortal.

That’s the background of Jessica Khoury’s wonderful debut novel Origin, in which Khoury explores a host of issues all the while spinning a highly engaging story of adventure and first love. It’s a very entertaining book that left a lot of questions lodged in my mind. Many of them aren’t new questions, but they’re questions that are bound to come up a lot over the next phase of human history.

What is the proper role of science?

What lengths are justified in the pursuit of scientific discovery?

To what extent should humans be biologically ‘modified’ with improvements?

And to what extent are children obliged to fulfill their own dreams and desires, and to carry out their assigned duties in the service of the dreams and desires of adults?

When we meet Pia, she is about to turn seventeen, and is on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged member of the scientific team at Little Camelot (the research facility). The entire focus of this facility, as led by a man Pia calls “Uncle Paolo”, is the development of nothing less than human immortality, which (they believe) would usher in a new golden age of humanity -- a permanent golden age. How such an achievement would change humanity is mostly glossed over -- there are a few discussion as to what it means to have humans stop reproducing, because they won’t need to -- but that’s clearly by design on Khoury’s part, as she is depicting one of the SF’s oldest and finest tropes, the scientists meddling with things best left unmeddled, and without really working through the ethical and moral implications of their project.

Consider Pia. Khoury doesn’t entirely spell out what is meant by ‘immortality’, but she establishes that Pia cannot be harmed by normal means. She can’t even have blood drawn, because the needles will no longer puncture her skin. So, how big a bomb blast would she survive, for instance? We’re not really told, but that’s probably a good thing, as it really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story.

Pia’s mother seems to look on Pia with disdain, and we do learn more about their relationship as the book goes on. The novel is one of relationships across the board, each one convincingly drawn. Most central to the book is the relationship between Pia and the native boy she meets, Eio, a member of a tribe called the Ai’oans. Pia meets Eio one night when she succumbs to her desire to see beyond the boundaries of the science facility and sneaks out. In many ways, meeting Eio puts Pia sets everything to come in motion.

Khoury’s Pia is a somewhat typical teenage/young adult protagonist in that she chafes against the boundaries that have been placed upon her life. What sets Origin apart is the nature of those boundaries. They are not just imposed from without, by the scientists in control of her life (on the basis that she is literally their greatest success and she is also, for all intents and purposes, a human lab rat), but also by the very nature of her being. The possibility of love terrifies Pia, because she can’t imagine a basically unending life of always outliving those she comes to love. But she also learns that love isn’t always a force that can be ordered around.

For all the interesting questions raised in Origin, Khoury is still able to craft a book that keeps the pages turning, first during the intriguing chapters at the beginning when we’re learning about this world of hers, then in the middle part of the book when Pia is starting to really develop, and then in the kinetic and at times horrific final act, when all manner of hell breaks loose as relationships are exposed and questions are answered.

I was particularly interested that Origin doesn’t seem to be set in any real specific timeframe. What I mean by that is that Khoury keeps things grounded well enough that even as the book’s central Maguffin is the scientists’ search for immortality (which is granted by the pollen of a flower that grows in exactly one place in the rain forest), there’s a powerful sense that the book could well be happening right now...or in twenty years...or in a hundred. In terms of location, Khoury keeps the book very tightly focused. It’s an interesting choice, and it turns out that this is an excellent book to put into the hands of people whose impression of science fiction is spaceships, and lots of ‘em.

(On that very last point: reading Origin in the same year as Beth Revis's Across the Universe and A Million Suns was a nice bit of synchronicity, given the teenage heroines in all three novels -- apropos to me personally, since Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title) also has a teenage girl as the main protagonist. Funny how things work out sometimes!)

I have no idea if Khoury is planning a sequel to Origin or not. I rather hope not, as the book is a fine stand-alone. And as a final bit of testimony, let me just note that I bought a copy for myself...and then, when finished, I bought another for The Daughter as one of her Christmas presents. Shhhh! Don’t tell her.

Origin is highly recommended.

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