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Book Review

Futuristic Saga's Saving Grace Pulls Into the Harbor Too Late

GENESIS; by Poul Anderson; Tom Doherty Associates $23.95, 256 pages

March 15, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It isn't until page 117 in Poul Anderson's 30th book of science fiction that Kalava the mariner shows up, and by then, for all but die-hard Anderson fans, it may be too late.

Kalava is the first character in the novel who is at least mildly interesting. He's an old warrior and adventurer who, like Tennyson's Ulysses, gathers former shipmates for a final voyage into the unknown.

Their Earth, a billion years hence, is threatened with extinction by a sun about to balloon into a red giant. Thick clouds like those on Venus trap heat; deserts expand north and south; only the dwindling green Arctic, which Kalava plans to explore, offers a temporary refuge.

The technology of Kalava's culture is, at best, medieval. He sails on something like a Viking ship. Navigation is chancy, with the clouds hiding the sun and stars. When he looks up and sees a bright flash in the heavens, he's astounded. A comet? A sign from the gods?

No, it's a spaceship, bearing an emissary from Alpha, the "galactic brain," whose origins can be traced to human experiments with artificial intelligence a billion years ago. Alpha wants to know whether, and how, Earth can be saved, and why the local "node" of the brain, Gaia, who dwells in the Arctic, has been secretive about recent developments on the planet.

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The emissary, called Wayfarer, contains selected parts of Alpha's database, including the personality of a human astronaut, Christian Brannock, which was "uploaded" into computer networks ages ago, giving Brannock a kind of immortality in which he could realize his dream of exploring the stars.

Gaia uploaded the personalities of many humans (including that of Laurinda Ashcroft, who lived two centuries after Brannock) before they died out, no longer needed in a world that artificial intelligence ran more smoothly. This human component in Gaia may be the reason for her odd behavior, Alpha thinks, and that's why he sends Brannock along on the mission.

If humans are extinct, though, where do Kalava and his crew come from? Wayfarer / Brannock, descending over the northern ocean, spots something that has no business being down there: a ship?

In his half-century career, with novels such as "Boat of a Million Years" and "Starfarers," Anderson has won all the science fiction awards. His scientific interests remain current. Whether or not the human-computer synthesis he described is possible, the idea has taken on a creepy inevitability. But his fictional abilities seem to have atrophied--perhaps out of impatience.

It's tedious work, after all, to adapt ideas, over and over again, to the story form. Brannock and Ashcroft are barely sketched in before they are uploaded. We can't mourn the loss of a humanity we never saw. The godlike entities that run the universe are bodiless and humorless and, Anderson keeps reminding us, beyond description altogether except in simplified "myth."

Gaia, it seems, has started the human race all over again, several times, tweaking history in hope of a better outcome. If the Earth is to be saved, she argues to Wayfarer, people should save it themselves. Like God--which she has effectively become--she grants them free will, making failure likely but also honoring the quality to which she owes her own existence.

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Any such summary sounds more interesting than "Genesis" itself proves to be--especially those first 116 pages, with their clunky dialogue and jarring transitions and stiff, futuristic costume drama. Anderson has to pause so often to explain things that an essay, rather than a novel, seems a better vehicle for this material--at least until Kalava, whose ignorant courage just might upset the most cosmic plans, weighs anchor at last.

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