INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY LENT
» Your book's set in the future – the late 22nd century – so would you classify it as a science fiction novel?
It's science fiction in the sense that it's fiction and one of its major themes is how science affects our world. But it's definitely not your typical science fiction book. Even though it's set in the next century, it's really about our society, our time. Because what we do now – the decisions we make – are what create our future.
» The d-humans who control the world in late 22nd century have all been genetically enhanced, and the Primals are like us – regular human beings. So, are the d-humans the bad guys? Does the novel present a dystopia where the bad guys are in charge?
No – I hope that, if a message comes out of the book, it's that there are no easy answers. Just like in the real world, the good and the bad are all mixed up. It's not black and white. In many ways, the d-humans represent everything that our society aspires to: they've managed to eliminate warfare; they've subordinated aggression and doctrinal belief as the drivers of human activity. From a certain viewpoint, the d-humans are a very real advance from our messed-up society. The d-humans inherit the disasters of our century: climate change, mass extinctions, and global conflict, and solve our problems. In the 21st century, our society turns the savannah into desert, but the d-humans turn it back into a massive wildlife refuge.
» So are the d-humans the good guys?
Well, that's also not so clear. The one thing that's missing from their society is something we hold very dear, even though we can't define it: it's called soul.
» What do you mean by "soul"?
That's one of the central themes of the book. What is the human soul? In the view of one of the characters, Yusef, the soul is what enables a human being to be in touch with God, with the infinite. And from his point of view, and the group he represents called the Rejectionists, the d-humans gave that up when they subordinated the gene set for doctrinal belief.
» So is that what you mean when you say the d-humans don't have "soul"?
No, it's more complicated than that. There's another key character in the book, a double Nobel Prize winner called Dr. Julius Schumacher, who lives in the mid-21st century and comes up with a completely different theory of the human soul, based on hard science.
» Science and the soul? How do they go together?
Dr. Schumacher pioneered the science of neurography: the mapping of human thoughts. And he comes up with a theory that the soul is in fact the emergent result of the countless billions of interactions among the DNA in our cells – not just our genes but also what are known as "junk DNA" – the 97% of DNA that's not known to have a function. Essentially, our soul is the music of our DNA.
» So why wouldn't the d-humans have this soul?
Dr. Schumacher's neurographic images - the images of thoughts - always had hazy smudges around them. Then, one day, he's analyzing the thoughts of lab rats whose genes have been neurographically optimized: a pacifist rat, or a super-aggressive rat. And he notices that the smudges have gone. The thought images are completely clear. He realizes after more research that these smudges, which become known as "Schumacher's smudges", are images of the soul. And when you optimize a creature's genes, you destroy the soul. It's like making violins more efficient by turning the curves into rectangles: you can pack them more easily but you destroy the music.
» Are there other parts of your book you'd characterize as "no easy answers"?
Perhaps the most dramatic example is the terrible dilemma Eusebio Franklin, the hero, is faced with. He's just a 10 th grade Primal schoolteacher, but he finds himself forced to make the most horrendous decision imaginable: whether to detonate a nuclear bomb in New York that will kill millions, in order to save our human race from extinction. What would you do in that situation?
» So in this case, you're saying that the terrorists are on our side? On the side of the human race?
Yes – that's what makes it such a dilemma. We're used to seeing terrorism in terms of black and white, of good and evil. But what if the survival of the human race was at stake? Would mass terrorism be justifiable in that case?
» I see what you mean. So who does the reader identify with in the novel – the Primals or the d-humans?
I think you naturally identify with Eusebio, the hero, who's a Primal. But the d-human society is our society, with Western values, just fast-forwarded 150 years. Our descendants are the d-humans. I guess that's part of what the book's about – showing how we can evolve faster than we'd imagine possible from one kind of human species to another.
» In the book blurb, it says "the human race is on trial." What does that mean?
It's the PEPS hearing at the United Nations – the Proposal for the Extinction of the Primal Species. There are about 7 billion d-humans and 3 billion Primals in the world in the late 22nd century. And many d-humans support PEPS: a "humane" proposal for the extinction of the Primals – a radioactive isotope that causes Primal women to have just one baby before becoming infertile. So, over many generations, the Primals would just fade away. A genocide without anybody actually being killed.
» That sounds awful – but in what way are we "on trial"?
Well, Eusebio's been picked as the representative of the Primals in a special hearing. Naomi Aramovich, the Primal rights activist, is arguing that the Primals shouldn't be made extinct because that would involve destroying their soul. Harry Shields, the d-human prosecutor, points to the genocides of indigenous populations we've conducted over the past five hundred years and argues that, if the human race ever did have a soul worth saving, the Primals have already destroyed it.
» So we're on trial for the crimes in our own history?
Exactly. And using 22nd century virtual reality technology, Eusebio, Naomi and Harry go back to moments of our history – like the Sand Creek Massacre of American Indians in 1864, and experience it from the point of view of those who got slaughtered. So, it's a different sort of science fiction – a story set in the future that examines our past and asks questions about our present, about where we're currently heading.