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Book cover art by John Jude Palencar.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Freireich's debut is a skillfully written but slow and thematically troubling novel of a genetically engineered slave's journey towards acceptance as a true human being. The novel scores well in that it is an earnest effort to bring some fresh ideas to a genre too often crippled by formula. But at the same time, I criticize Freireich's technophobic themes. One thing that has interested me about recent debates on human cloning, stem cell research, and that sort of thing, is that the only people you usually hear waving their arms and spouting alarmist, Chicken Little predictions of "Frankenstein babies," eugenic monstrosities, and that kind of thing are, of course, the Luddites, the people for whom words like "bioengineering" are innately terrifying. A presumption is made that, if this technology can possibly be put to its very worst uses, then it will, period. And that seems to be the premise underlying Becoming Human.

The story is set in a far future milieu in which colonial worlds have coalesced into a federation called the Polite Harmony of Worlds. (How PC is that?) The Harmony's political headquarters inhabit a floating city called Center, high in the atmosphere of the planet Sucre. As the novel opens we meet Alexander, a genetically engineered "toolman" who serves one of the high-ranking Electors of the Harmony, Sanda Brauna, as a personal "probe," or spy. Probes, as well as other toolmen like guardians, are considered subhumans, essentially slaves, with no civil rights to speak of, and like the replicants in Blade Runner, they have a preprogrammed limited lifespan of only 33 years. (Freireich wastes no time in setting up the Christ analogy.) Attitudes towards subs are so inhumane that Alexander can apparently cause a major scandal simply by smiling when he's not supposed to, and the slightest deviation from his duties seems to carry the threat of execution.

Thus the Polite Harmony, while appearing enlightened on the surface, is actually just another cruel dystopia. The Harmony's entire political and philosophical undercarriage is rooted in Jonism, named after one of the Harmony's founders, and which is described as a "search for truth" without recourse to ancient revealed religions. Though the Harmony rejects superstitions, Jonism is dogmatically followed as if it were a religion itself, something Freireich conveys with minimal but still discernible irony. Freireich seems to take it as a given that rejection of religion will de facto lead to cruelty, amorality and inhumanity, a position I, as a very moral atheist, find just plain offensive and stupid.

Alexander discovers that negotiations between the Harmony and the renegade world of Neuland, whose natives are routinely modified (none of them feels pain), are a sham. Neuland claims to be under constant threat of invasion from marauding aliens called the Bril, and Alexander cuts a secret deal to help them get accepted into the Harmony in exchange for treatments that will prolong his life. But then Neuland fakes an attack by the Bril (using a ship they've captured long ago) on a Harmony world that kills a third of its inhabitants in a ploy to make Neuland's value to the Harmony seem indispensible. Alexander learns not only of this, but that Brauna and some other Electors know about it too, and still plan to let Neuland into the Harmony anyway, using their knowledge of this treachery as leverage to exercise control over the Neulanders. Alexander exposes the whole charade but shields Brauna, brandishing himself a traitor and taking the ultimate punishment. And that's just the first 58 pages of the novel, gang, in case you think I've given you any big spoilers.

Freireich's plot is extremely dense — and thus slow-moving — but it maintains your interest more or less as it jumps 23 years ahead, where we meet August, a clone of Alexander's who serves Brauna in the same capacity Alexander did. August leads the life of a pariah to all but Brauna, his face a constant reminder of Alexander's presumed treason. Neuland is again making overtures to the Harmony, of course, to the great skepticism of many. But with the passage of time there has come some degree of doubt about what really happened all those years ago. The ambassador of the world Neuland attacked is now convinced of the truth and of Alexander's innocence. But rather than nobly coming forth with the truth, he simply hopes to use August to satisfy his lust for revenge against Neuland. August must walk the tightest of tightropes, never sure exactly whom to trust.

Ultimately, Freireich's story, while pretending to address deeply the issues of What Makes Us Human?, gives us the same simplistic answer we get from virtually every movie Tom Hanks has ever made: love. Hey, nothing wrong with love, folks, but let's have a little realism, too. When characters get all messianic on me I start feeling like I'm being played for a sucker. We are supposed to find August incredibly noble because of his unconditional love for Sanda Brauna, a love so profound that, when he learns one of Brauna's enemies wants to use him against her politically, he disfigures his face with boiling water. In contrast, the Neulanders are characterized as evil because they have gone the farthest with their bioengineering technology. Since they can't feel physical pain, we're just supposed to accept as a given that they have no empathy for anyone else and are automatically the kind of people who would nuke millions of innocents to further their ends.

A similar shallowness pervades the Harmony. Again, the book assumes that any culture capable of making human beings by any means other than good ol' coitus will brutally condemn those beings to a nightmarish life of slavery, fear, pain, and instantaneous death on a whim. Ethics, even of the most basic sort, simply wouldn't exist at all in such a culture. This strikes me as reactionary.

Perhaps it was not Freireich's intent to wax in such an anti-science fashion, and I'm unfairly maligning the book. But I don't think so. Clearly she is a very intelligent woman, and her writing style is impressively literary and substantive without any recourse to show-offiness or pretension. There is much to admire in this novel from a literary standpoint, and I have nothing in principle against an author polemicizing if she chooses to. I just disagree with Freireich's points as I see them. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Followed by Testament.