I do enjoy a smart, creepy work of science fiction, and Genesis, by NZ author Bernard Beckett, is one such novel. Set in a futuristic Aotearoa New Zealand that has cut itself off from a (possibly) plague-ridden world and made some dramatic changes to its society, it’s an examination of what it means to be human–told from a (possibly) post-human perspective, but drawing on all sorts of human philosophy to do so.
The heroine, Anaximander, is a student eager to pass examination for entrance into an elite Academy. To do so, she has to take a test on her special subject–the life of Adam Forde, a rebel from the era of rebuilding. Adam is the ultimate exemplar of humanity writ large, and in her presentation of his life, Anaximander finds herself debating his actions, his words, and her own interpretation of them.
The whole of Genesis is presented through Anaximander’s examination, and as a series of dialogues. Those of us interested in classical reception note that Anax is named for the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, the writer of an exploration into the origins of life. (As Babette Pütz notes, Anax’s examination of Adam forms her own exploration into her own, and her society’s origins.)* Other figures in the book have names such as Plato, Socrates, Pericles, and Aristotle . . . and of course its title makes one think of an entirely different tradition of thought and belief . . . (Click on the links here to read Our Mythical Survey entries on Genesis and its companion books August and Lullaby)
If you want to find out what happens, and what conclusions Anax reaches, read the book. Its emphasis on dialogue and debate make it an unusually direct exploration philosophy, framed in a compelling science fiction format.
Much of the appeal of works like Genesis comes from the question–what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that comes up often in young adult fiction, as part of the coming-of-age plot. Figuring out who one is, where one comes from, finding out how to fit in, and what to fit in to–all of these are important issues for characters (and readers) growing up and working out their place in the world.
Beckett’s novels and plays confront this head on: he’s a scientist interested in philosophy, and many of his books plunge readers into an intellectual work-out that they may not expect. But that’s its appeal for me–I liked the almost clinical format of the novel, which seldom leaves the examination room (though Anax’s presentation tells us much about the world she inhabits).
I was curious about what drew Beckett to writing this novel, and so I asked him a few questions. Here are his answers.
Interview with Bernard Beckett
What drew you to using classical material in your works for young readers?
There are a couple of things that drew me to classical references in Genesis in particular and, to a lesser extent, August. The first is simply the school teacher’s instinct to share with others the knowledge that most delights us, and when I was writing Genesis a lot of these things were fresh in my mind. While writing the novel I was on a fellowship at a research centre, finding out a lot of new things for me, both about molecular evolution, and also philosophy, and you can’t really have any sort of sensible interest in philosophy without going back to classical references. I forget who it was who described all Western philosophy as ‘footnotes to Plato’ and there’s some significant truth in that.
The second reason relates to the themematic structure of Genesis, where it is an examination of the stories of the past which make sense of the story in the present, and so there is a particularly appealling symmetry in referencing my own cultural foundations (to have Western heritage is, I think, to owe an awful lot to the thinkers of classical Greece in particular. There are very few ideas that fascinate me now that I can’t find serious consideration of in those times.
Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?
The resonance is I think essentially the wave of the Renaissance, slow breaking over centuries. As was the case then, so now it is tremendously exciting somehow, and humbling too, to discover that sophistication didn’t begin in 1984, that we have at our disposal this vast treasure trove of wisdom and experience. there is something tremendously comforting in that thought too, a sort of camaraderie that stretches over millenia, to know that our troubles have been met before, and battled with too, vanquished too in some cases. There is also the appeal of somehow joining a secret society, bound by knowledge, its password a set of magical names from the past.
Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?
I have no background in this stuff, formally speaking, but I have read as widely as I can on the philosophers of ancient times and continue to do so. So whether it’s Bertrand Russell’s partisan History of Western Philosophy, Karl Popper’s dismissive rendering of Plato, or Massimo Piggliuici’s affectionate take on the stoics, I’ve entered the world mostly via the more populist works of professional philosophers, and then made use of things like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia or my own copy of the Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. But any source will do, so long as one is prepared to read critically, and test what is written against the utterances of others.
Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?
In my books I was more referencing obliquely and hoping for some eager minds that would be enough to send them searching for more. Mostly the ideas themselves have already translated into the fictional expression, as these are novels. The thing I am confident of is that the same ideas, the same obsessions, will continue to entice and fascinate. When that is no longer true, we have surely lost our humanity.
Are you planning any further forays into classical material?
I think the more an idea settles in you, the more it becomes native to your every expression. So in one form or another that fascination will always resurface, f not explicitly (although as soon as you ask that question, an idea forms…)
Anything else you think we should know?
The last thing I would like to say is that the biggest mistake to avoid in the modern world is to think nobody has ever grappled with our ideas before. the number of ideas I hear an idea presented in education as if it has only just been discovered, and all of humanity will now change on the back of this insight (pedagogy for the 21st century anyone – how these phrases make me ill) and every time I hear it I ask myself, is there anything in this that Socrates would have been surprised by? Recently I was giving a presentation on wellbeing in an educational setting, and so, of course, my first point of call in doing my preparation was Aristotle. Where else would a discussion of wellbeing begin? And by the time I got my head about even the most cursory consideration of his work, I was ready. Great thought lasts for a reason. It’s exactly why Shakespeare is still performed, and Mozart too. Not that we can never do better, but rather that beauty accretes and it is every generations good fortune to be able to look backward as well as forward.
*Babette Pütz, ‘Classical Influences in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, August and Lullaby’ in Antipodean Antiquities: Classical Reception Down Under, ed. Johnson. Bloomsbury: 2019