Genesis, by Paul Chafe, is a multigenerational saga originating with one man’s obsession to build a colony ship in order to one day save the human race. This is the story of Joshua Crewe, a man driven to see his life’s ambition come to fruition. Crewe believes the time of humans on Earth is coming to a close and the only possible future for humanity, the only chance for the survival of the species, lay in the stars.
The initial chapter (excluding a bit of a prologue) is titled “L-95”. The supposition here is that this refers to 95 years before launch. This novel will play out over more than a century, more than one lifetime. The first third of the novel belongs to Joshua Crewe and his political maneuvering in the attempts to get the Ark project off the ground and into a position where even politics cannot stop the project.
What is most interesting about Genesis is that this is not simply a novel about putting the pieces in place to even be able to build the Ark. That itself could be a good story, what with the political struggle, religious fundamentalism, a world in the midst of a powershift, a North America losing its power and prestige, a global energy crisis, and a demagogue on the rise. There is plenty there in the fight between Joshua Crewe as Secretary of the United Nations and Norman Bissell, the True Prophet. In Abrahim and the engineering challenges he faces with the pressure of politics. The first third could be a solid novel, but it is only part of the story.
Given that the copy on the back cover reveals the other two viewpoint perspectives, Genesis is also the story of Aurora Brady and Jedidiah Fougere. Brady’s story begins 55 years before launch and is well into the construction of the Ark. Jedidiah’s story is set 177 years AFTER launch. Each storyline, from Crewe to Brady to Fougere sets up what is to come next. The decades separating each section of the novel is required for the social and political developments to progress in such a way to make the next section possible.
The strength of Genesis is the multigenerational scope of the story. What Paul Chafe does well, on a macro level, is tell an ambitious story from conception to conclusion – the sort of story that might well require several volumes from another author – or the sort of story that would be told in flashback and the reader would never really see how such a project would be built. Chafe touches on politics, religion, power, energy, ambition, and weaves so many varying motivations and challenges together into a sometimes compelling narrative. Each section of the novel examines different challenges in different ways. This is an ambitious novel and on occasion Genesis even lives up to the level of ambition. But not always.
The strength of Genesis is also its weakness. The scope of Genesis is almost too big for Paul Chafe. By broadening the story so much and allowing no more than 200 pages for any one era of development, each section is somewhat short changed. Another problem Chafe faces is that C. J. Cherryh told a similar story in the first four pages of Cyteen and did a far better job in those four pages than Chafe did in 589 pages. Granted, the difference is that Chafe focused on the challenges faced by individual characters in the building of the Ark and Cherryh focused instead on giving four pages of colonization background on the universe Cyteen inhabits. The fact remains, though, that Cherryh’s four pages were far more compelling than the sum of Genesis the novel. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but it is one that also fits. The weakness is that for all Chafe is a decent storyteller and gives readers the chance to care about the characters, Chafe never seems to rise to the challenge of the ambition presented in the scope of the novel. For such a sprawling novel Chafe needs to be much better than he is with Genesis.
Knowing there is a forthcoming Exodus: The Ark so much of Genesis feels like prologue for the next novel. Without knowing exactly where Exodus will take this story, it is difficult to say for sure that this is the case. Each of the three sections of Genesis has resolution for the characters, but the novel itself is incomplete. While the journey to the new homeplanet is one which will take hundreds or thousands of years, the story of Genesis is one which points to a resolution, an end point, an arrival. Genesis does not provide that arrival.
Taken on its own Genesis is a decent enough job of storytelling, but ultimately unsatisfying. It’s just not good enough.
Baen: 2009, MMPB (Baen: 2007 HC)