Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home—and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life.
Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia’s origin—a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.
-cover and synopsis courtesy of goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: I absolutely adore this cover. The entire novel is designed with the same techy font effects. The colors are striking and appropriate. I even love how Pia’s outline is realistically hippy rather than unrealistically thin.
Planetary Class: Sean’s been jockeying for the acceptance of the term “contemporary science fiction” in our parlance for awhile. Origin, set in our world, in the modern Amazon rainforest, seems like a prime candidate for that label.
Viability Rating: Khoury’s world starts scientifically plausible, but grows progressively less-so. Her entire premise rests on a sort of communal Stockholm Syndrome, lasting generations, which I’m not quite sure I bought. But my biggest “wait, that’s not right!” moment came during a passage which seemed to suggest that cerebral palsy is a progressive disease.
Mohs Scale: Origin starts reasonably hard and grows softer over time. On a whole, I’d call it a four for Physics Plus.
Xenolinguisical Assessment: Khoury’s debut is a nice example first-person done right. The entire novel is infused with both Pia’s voice and her (admittedly flawed) view of the universe. The prose is at times pretty, but also very real. Nicely accomplished writing overall.
Expanded Report: There are books you respect for how well they’re crafted–their pace, strong voice and vivid characters. There are novels with themes you believe in, which expand your thinking on a subject in a new and thrilling way. And then there are certain books that do one, or the other, but not both; there are novels you admire, but don’t very well like because what they say about the world is abhorrent to you. For me, Origin is one of those novels.
For the good: this is one of the most immersively atmospheric young adult novels I’ve read in a long time. The pacing, breathlessly engaging, and easily matches Beth Revis’s Across the Universe, one of my favorites. Debut author Jessica Khoury presents one of the most distinctive and perfectly realized characters in Pia, an immortal girl raised by a team of scientists in a secret lab in the Amazon rainforest. Khoury’s prose is lovely and lyrical, drawing a vivid picture of Pia and her environs. She’s a confidant writer.
I just can’t get behind what she wrote about.
The overwhelming message of Origin is “the thirst for scientific knowledge makes scientists do evil things.” To be fair, this is a somewhat classical message in science fiction, one that’s understandably been with us since Hiroshima. And it’s been particularly popular in recent pop sci-fi. Lost, for example, which Origin both evokes and conspicuously lifts certain plot points (one female scientist’s backstory perfectly matches Juliet’s) seemed to have at its heart an anti-science argument. Those behind Lost have since gone on to create other media where scientists are bumbling or evil: Fringe is in many ways the story of one scientist’s atonement for evil acts. Prometheus presented a world where scientific curiosity leads inevitably to ruin. In fact, in interviews, Damon Lindelof stated that he felt science fiction fundamentally is a cautionary tale. As suggested in Lost itself, we should just have faith, and stop asking questions.
Khoury takes a slightly different route in portraying science as evil. She simply chooses to make the scientists in her story the evilest evil people ever. They raise Pia with a wealth of scientific knowledge, but none about the outside world. They tell her that she will be a scientist, and implore her to embrace a method of cold rationality which includes murdering kittens. I am not making this up. In fact, the scientists are portrayed as so flatly evil that, when characters allude to a mysterious catalyst which make immortality possible, I said to myself, “these scientists are so evil, I bet it comes from eating babies.” I wasn’t far off.
(To be fair, there are two mildly good scientists. It was not enough to counteract the EVIL SCIENCE IS EVIL message for me.)
I recently attended a con panel on dystopian YA fiction; there, it was suggested that modern YA dystopias are dark because teens live in uncertain times. I understand that Khoury, fairly young herself, coming of age in an era when the evils of, say, stem cell research are frequently in the news, but when it comes down to it, her scientists are nothing like the passionate, curious, engaged, kind scientists that I know in my own life. The message, and its lack of nuance, felt close to an affront.
There are other ways in which Origin reminded me of Lost, particularly in the inexplicable cageyness of certain characters. There was a scene where Pia shouts at one to tell her information and he tells her over and over again that he can’t. But he could. The deflection only served to postpone the reveal of information to where it was most impactful, but it didn’t make much sense.
But still, this is a finely crafted novel, and Khoury is a powerful writer. I just don’t agree, personally, with what she wrote about. Those who enjoy sci-fi as a cautionary tale (I’m looking at you, Damon Lindelof!) will find quite a bit to like here.
I’m also giving away my signed ARC of Origin! Fill out the Rafflecopter below to enter.