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Literature / Genome

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Genome (Геном, Genom) is a science fiction trilogy by the popular Russian sci-fi and fantasy author Sergey Lukyanenko. The setting of the two novels and a short story is a faraway future, where humanity is a vast interstellar Empire and one of the galactic superpowers. In the novels, the author addresses such issues as genetic engineering, cloning, and free will.

The first novel, Genome, takes place in a time when genetic engineering becomes so commonplace that many parents purchase so-called specializations for their unborn children, resulting in a society where these individuals known as Speshs are placed above the Naturals. In this novel, Lukyanenko explores the impact this practice has had on The 'Verse. Halfway through, the novel turns into a murder mystery, when an alien dignitary is killed on-board the protagonist's ship, who only has 48 hours to find and punish the murderer before an all-out war breaks out which will result in total devastation and no clear victor.

The second novel, Dances on the Snow, is actually a prequel to Genome, although, according to Word of God, it should be read after the first novel. The events take place about a century before Genome and feature none of the same characters. Genetic engineering and cloning are yet to be perfected. The protagonist is a young orphan who stumbles on a plot to take over the Empire using Brainwashed planetary populations, one world at a time.

The short story Cripples is a sequel to Genome, set twenty years later. Out of all the Genome characters, only the protagonist remains. He is now in charge of a team of experts that specialize in "taming" out-of-control ships. Their new task is highly profitable and also highly dangerous. They have to convince the most powerful warship in the galaxy to fight. However, the ship's builders have intentionally programmed the ship's AI to only take orders from a "worthy" crew, said worthiness being proven if the crew can resolve a deadly situation better than the ship.

Thus far, only the first novel has been translated into English.

The trilogy contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Alien Among Us: Zzygou females look very similar to young human girls. With some plastic surgery, they can easily pass for a human.
  • Animated Tattoo: An imp that doubles as an Expressive Shirt.
  • Bee People: the Zzygou are insectoids with females in charge. The males have only recently been granted intelligence, as mindless drones are unable to operate complex equipment.
  • Blue Blood: given the nature of the novel, the degenerate remains of the old aristocracies on the planet Heraldica have deliberately modified themselves to have blue blood. Presumably, it's only coloring, and it's still iron-based.
  • Brain/Computer Interface: in the prequel, neuroshunts are brain implants with a port on one side of the head. Most people have them, and they're required for most jobs. They allow a direct interface with a computer. Most newer models are also equipped with radio plugins that allow people to control small appliances and the like but deliberately don't have the bandwidth of a direct cable connection (for security purposes). Often enough, a shunt one has as a child determines the kinds of jobs one can do as an adult. Additionally, for adults, it's far more difficult, dangerous, and expensive to upgrade a neuroshunt. Some of those who can afford it don't do it out of principle, not seeing the point of upgrading to a newer model every year (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). In the novel, Tikkirey has a Creative Gigabit 101, which is a very respectable shunt on his backwater planet. Then he arrives on a prosperous planet and is told that his "advanced" model is sub-par at best by local standards.
  • Bug War: the war with the Zzygou is a very real threat in Genome.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: Used in the first novel by the protagonist to figure out that Edgar is not who he claims to be. A teenage boy's virtual fantasy would not have women of normal proportions.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: after Alex finds out that Kim is not only a fighter-spesh but also a hetaera-spesh, Janet explains that Kim's second specialization has caused her to fall in love with Alex (also as gratitude for helping her earlier). A hetaera-spesh is designed to fall completely in love with her client and be unable to fall out of love until he reciprocates. Unfortunately, Alex is a pilot-spesh and is utterly incapable of feeling love for another person, which means that they are stuck with Kim loving him and him being unable to reciprocate and also be unable to keep her away due to him feeling responsible for anyone under his wing (another part of him being a pilot-spesh). He solves this dilemma later by convincing a genetic scientist to provide him a temporary cure for the psychological effects of specialization, which both allows Kim to fall out of love with him and allows himself to experience love (not for Kim).
  • Compelling Voice: several characters in Dances on the Snow have special training that allows them to use "Imperative Voice" with this effect. During the climax, two characters vie for control of the protagonist, both using Imperative Voice.
  • Cure Your Gays: Purely accidental, male homosexual to bi. Pak Generalov's homosexuality is cured with the same Phlebotinum that is used to undo specialization. It "blocks all genetically deranged emotions" and seemingly him preferring men is one of them. He starts experimenting with women and it's likely to become a habit by the time the drug wears off.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Deliberately invoked by Zzygou, who frequently give their females the shape of teenage human girls with Big Anime Eyes. In the past, they used them as infiltrators, spies, and saboteurs and only their stench gave them away. Turns out, the concept that a smell can be unpleasant was so alien to them, they figured it only by the start of Genome (they can block the smell, but this results in discomfort for them). This is also one of their preferred shapes to negotiate with humans.
  • Designer Babies: the Speshs, although everyone has some sort of gene therapy done to fix certain defects, such as poor eyesight.
  • Discriminate and Switch: when the Zzygou and their human-clone guide get on board, Pak Generalov is very hostile towards the group. Naturally, everyone assumes he hates aliens (not an uncommon sentiment). However, it turns out he's ok with the Zzygou. It's cloning he can't stand.
    • Also used by Pak when being hired by Alex. Pak asks if it's a problem that he's gay, to which Alex replies that he doesn't care. Pak then admits he's a Natural, which is something that Alex does feel prejudiced against. However, since he had just claimed that he doesn't discriminate, he can't very well go back on his own word. Alex realizes that this must be how Pak gets hired on so many ships only to be kicked out in short order with stellar recommendations (Pak is very good at his job, but his personality leaves a lot to be desired).
      • Bonus: Natural (натурал) in modern Russian is an antonym of gay.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: while Earth isn't mentioned much, there are indications that the ecological situation on the planet has radically changed since the 21st century. For example, Odessa, Ukraine, is mentioned to be located in or near a rainforest. Apparently, there are lions in that rainforest, which is a little odd, since lions don't typically live in rainforests.
  • Easter Egg: the final chapter of Genome contains a coded message that can be found by only reading the capital letters.
  • Emotion Suppression: The speshs (specialists who are genetically augmented for certain jobs) have certain emotions suppressed and others modified as part of their specialization.
  • Empire, The: humans are all subjects of the Empire and are ruled by an Emperor. It is not a tyrannical rule, however. There are also several alien empires.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: in the prequel, this is how Captain Stas figures out how Iney is brainwashing entire planetary populations to join their federation. He tells Tikkirey that Iney produces many popular virtual shows... then realizes that to watch them, people have to plug in with their neuroshunts, opening themselves up to covert influence.
  • Explosions in Space
  • Fantastic Racism: several human factions despise aliens. There is also distrust between the Speshs and the Naturals.
    • Pak also hates clones. His arguments range from reasonable (human beings are meant to be diverse, not identical) to strawman (the clones are taking all the good jobs) to outlandish (the number of clones is actually much higher, and many normal humans are secretly clones).
  • Flash Step: any fighter-spesh can move faster than the eye can see when necessary, so any non-fighter will see them move to another location in the blink of an eye with barely a blur.
  • Free-Love Future: played straight on some human worlds. Additionally, it's not an uncommon practice to file for a time-limited marriage contract as short as 24 hours. Alex uses this, as well as his captain's prerogative to set the time aboard his ship, to get Kim an ID without alerting anyone who might be looking for her. Additionally, Alex and Kim go into a discussion about their respective sex education, and Alex is surprised to find out that Kim's wealthy parents hired a guy to instruct her in sex (she's in her low teens), pointing out that all he had was the standard virtual instruction at his school. Kim explains that she had that too, but the real thing is better.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: the main plotline of the first novel.
  • Great Detective: Peter "C-the-Forty-Forth" Valk is a detective-spesh from the planet Zodiac, who prefers to be called Sherlock Holmes and adopts the mannerisms of his literary prototype (such as smoking a pipe and playing the violin) and even finds a doctor named Watson to be his sidekick (a female doctor named Jenny Watson, although that's no longer so strange). Like any detective-spesh, he lacks any human emotion, except for his absolute devotion to the law. It's stated that detective-speshes solve over 90% of their cases. There is a reason the original Peter Valk has been cloned at least 44 times, and all of his clones have lived up to the name.
  • Great Offscreen War: several wars are mentioned but none described.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: using the tunnels is tricky. Only navigator-sheshes (or rare Natural navigators) are capable of successfully plotting a course through the five-dimensional space. It's even stated that there is actually only one tunnel in the universe. Since humans are unable to perceive five dimensions (or even four), it appears that there are multiple tunnels. Maneuvering inside a tunnel is impossible. The exit point depends on the entry vector and the speed of the drive pulsation. There are also stories from old spacers who claim to have seen ghost ships or even mirror images of their own ships in the tunnel. Alex admits that they're all probably made up.
  • Immortality Immorality: Edward Garlitski is, effectively, immortal, as he exists as an uploaded brain in a processing crystal. Losing some of their humanity ensued.
  • Innocently Insensitive: the Zzygou females who arrive aboard the Mirror tend to refer to the crew as "servants", much to the crewmembers' chagrin. Alex asks their guide to try to explain to Zzygous that the term is a little offensive.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: an unclear example, but Captain Stas mentions some kind of "Catholic jihad" on Earth.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: In his Iney-induced dream, Lion spent five years fighting a war on Iney's side. In the dream, Lion had a close friend, who was killed, when they were ambushed by their unspecified enemy. Lion was the only survivor. So, he raised his hands as if in surrender... and then killed all the enemies surrounding him with a small weapon he had on his wrist. Strangely, no one considers it a war crime.
  • Kiss Me, I'm Virtual: during downtime, Alex plugs in a gel-crystal full of erotic simulations and goes into VR. When the system asks for parameters, he eliminates anything relating to sex with aliens, homosexuality, or BDSM, but lets the system randomly generate a scenario. Unfortunately for him, the scenario turns out to involve gerontophilia (i.e. sexual preference for the elderly), and he rejects the old woman and exits the program. He then realizes that, by all rights, he could not have rejected her, since his pilot-spesh conditioning would require him to take care of anyone under his "wing". This is one of the first indications that the serum he took before that is starting to work.
  • Knight Templar: humans on the planet Ebon are the followers of the Church of the Angered Christ and believe that all aliens must be exterminated. They have devoted all their efforts to building the most powerful force in the galaxy and bred soldiers specialized in killing and torturing aliens. The Empire was forced to quarantine Ebon lest all alien races would band together against them.
  • Les Yay: Invoked. It's mentioned that, for some reason, the Unusual User Interface of a spaceship tends to get women to be more attracted to other women, even if they're normally straight. It may or may not have something to do with the fact that FTL travel used to be fatal to non-frozen women before the advent of the genetic age.
  • No Woman's Land: A mild example in Dances on the Snow. According to Captain Stas, because women can only survive FTL travel by becoming a Human Popsicle, human civilization has been developing as overly masculine: logical, serious, slightly aggressive and adventurous, maybe even kind and just, but only if it doesn't go against logic. Women tend to be treated as second-class citizens, especially by spacers, who treat them as "cargo." Without women's input to balance rationality with emotion, people (even women) are conditioned to think in this manner. This appears to change by Genome, as advances in genetic engineering allow women to endure FTL travel without being frozen.
  • Non-Mammal Mammaries: Zzygous have these, being insectoid and all that. Justified: after one removes her spacesuit, we find out those are her pseudopodii.
  • The Nose Knows: An easy way of telling a Zzygou female from a human woman (if the Zzygou is in disguise) is by the strong smell. As it turns out, the Zzygou naturally produce mercaptan (a compound typically added to natural gas, giving it its distinct smell) and are unaware that a smell can be offensive. They have since learned to block the production of the odor at great personal discomfort.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: no one likes dealing with "Spiders", who are, basically, bureaucrats hooked into virtual interfaces with several cables. Hang Morrison is barred from signing on to another ship by the "Spiders" demanding that he provide certain details about his family history, which would take him days to acquire. Of course, it's later revealed that this is all part of the plan to start a war with the Zzygou.
  • Parental Abandonment: the prequel novel starts with the protagonist's parents volunteering to commit suicide to get their son a government stipend. Naturally, they don't bother asking him first, and only tell him after it's already too late (they have already taken the 24-hour poison). He resents them for this decision for a decent chunk of the novel.
  • Practical Effects: An in-universe example. In the prequel, Captain Stas mentions a new retro-action flick set in Bible Times being made using real-life actors, sets, and special effects. No CGI at all, which is unheard of in that day and age. Even the actors are going to be hypnotized to believe that it's all real. The movie is called The Wise Man of Nazareth.
  • Secret Test of Character: Soon after Tikkirey arrives on Avalon and starts working for the Phages, his boss asks him to recycle a defective plasma whip that has failed to bond with any Phage. At the recycler, the whip suddenly bonds to Tikkirey, and he can't bring himself to destroy it. He throws a bunch of trash in the recycler that matches the whip's weight and metal content and delivers the receipt to his boss as proof of destruction. Later on, the whip saves his life, when he goes ice skating on a frozen lake and falls through the ice. Captain Stas arrives and tells him that the whip was a test of loyalty... and Tikkirey has failed. However, the fact that the whip has bonded itself to Tikkirey changes things, as this has never happened before. They admit that being bonded to a whip would make it really difficult to destroy it and let him stay.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Kim O'Hara is named after the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim.
    • Detective Peter Valk is named after Peter Falk, the actor most known for his role as Detective Columbo.
    • The execution scene is similar to Milady's execution in The Three Musketeers. Except that nobody forgives the villain.
    • One of the few casualties of a Zzygou merchant ship's attack on a provincial planet Volga is a bookstore owner named Yuri "C-the-Second" Semetskiy. This is a reference to the fact that many Russian sci-fi authors tend to put a bit character named Semetskyi into their novels who usually get killed off, following a tradition that started when Lukyanenko accidentally killed a character by that name in one of his early books, causing the Real Life Yuri Semetskiy (a sci-fi publisher) to first complain and then demand that he be "killed" in all of the author's books.
    • The virtual sex simulation, which Alex finally picks after several failures, repeats the plot of a popular Soviet romantic dramedy Office Romance about an accountant (divorced and raising 2 sons) falling in love with his boss.
  • Star Killing: the Liturgy-class cruisers developed on Ebon are capable of detonating a star's photosphere to cause an artificial nova, killing all life in the system. This is all a part of their goal to cleanse the universe of any alien lifeforms to prepare the path for the "true children of God". This seems to ignore the fact that this would leave much of the galaxy without any habitable worlds.
  • Stealth in Space: averted with the crew in Cripples being forced to use natural obstacles such as asteroids to hide from automated warships.
  • Take That!: the character of Pak Generalov is gay and a clone-hater. Lukyanenko, a FidoNet user, created him to make fun of a fellow FidoNet user named Vladimir Generalov, known for his gay-bashing posts.
  • Treasure Chest Cavity: One of Kim's many modifications is a fist-sized poach in her stomach. The novel starts with her hiding there a very valuable stolen device. The poach has many uses for a genetically specialized super-spy, although it's implied that she's been designed a couple of decades ago precisely for smuggling this particular crystal.
  • Unseen Evil: Supposedly, a race so evil and powerful threatens to invade known space, that one of the races posted powerful automated warships to protect everyone. Seeing how said race are a bunch of Axe-Crazy warmongers, the heroes muse that maybe those nefarious invaders are, in fact, benevolent and enlightened. Nobody's eager to check though.
  • Unusual User Interface: while standard starship controls exist on any ship, they are there only for traditional purposes. All crewmembers "jack into" the ship's virtual reality network, which they use to perform their function. Speshs can do that without any special equipment, as their brainwaves have been altered to be in sync with any mind-machine interface. Naturals require a physical cable to connect their brain implant to the machine.
  • Vagina Dentata: Kim's specialty is actually a superspy. It includes a poison sting inside her vagina, controlled either consciously or automatically upon rape attempts. Which is exactly the Big Bad tries.
  • Vestigial Empire: the Taii used to rule most of the known universe until their war with an equally powerful opponent, leading to mutual devastation. Now they are left with a few dozen worlds and outdated technology and are slowly dying out, as younger races take what was once theirs. As a token of respect, the younger races still let the Taii send their ancient moon-sized battleships on patrols of their former holdings. The novel makes a point to mention that the giant ships are usually escorted by modern warships of the younger races a tiny fraction of their size but capable of obliterating the relic with a single volley.
    • The protagonist fears a similar outcome for humanity, should the war with the Zzygou break out.
      • The Empire is arguably in the process of becoming this. If you read the novels in internal chronological order, you see the Empire experiencing its first rebellion, followed by more rebellions followed by its member planets becoming more independent. In Cripples, the crew isn't even sure who the Emperor is, because his authority means little in the outer reaches.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: the killer turns out to be a particular kind of spesh capable of, among other things, assume another person's physical appearance and even specialization.
  • The Watson: Detective Peter C-Forty-Fourth Valk (who prefers to be called Sherlock Holmes) has an assistant named Dr. Jenny Watson, a forensics expert. Not sure if he picked her because of her name or primarily for her forensics knowledge.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: the standard currency of the Empire.
  • Wetware CPU: the prequel novel takes place before the invention of gel crystals. As such, FTL travel requires several humans to be plugged into the navigation system to act as processors for the complex five-dimensional calculations. While this is happening, the "processor" shuts down and only wakes on arrival. The people who do this are well-paid, but there is a horrible side effect. After several such trips, the frontal lobe starts to atrophy due to disuse. Eventually, the "processors" stop making any decisions altogether and no longer wish to leave the ship. The person still survives, but only as a vegetable. Even after only five years (a standard contract), a person has to spend a decade relearning how to make decisions. The simplest choices (say, between three kinds of lemonade) become painful ordeals.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Genetically engineered pilots, detectives, and tax inspectors are incapable of loving another person. A pilot-spesh will instead fall in love with his or her ship. Detective-speshs love the law. Slightly subverted in that they know what love is from before their transformation at mid-teens, or at least as much as a teenager high on hormones can know about love.