A Review of Origin by Jessica Khoury and a GIVEAWAY!
Razorbill (Penguin) 2012
By REBECCA, September 24, 2012
Pia: genetically engineered to be immortal, Pia is working to become a scientist so she can make more like her
Eio: boy from the nearby village, he teaches Pia that some things are more powerful than scientific logic
Uncle Paolo: Pia’s main teacher and mentor, he cares only about creating a race of immortals
Sylvia: Pia’s biological mother, she too sees Pia as a means to an end
Uncle Antonio: treats Pia like a real girl rather than just a science experiment.
Aunt Harriet: a new arrival to the jungle, she brings with her a boarding school girl’s knowledge of escape routes and lies
Pia is genetically engineered to be immortal. The first successful one of her kind, she has grown up in Little Cambridge (Little Cam for short), a research facility in the middle of a jungle, where she is being groomed to join the team of scientists whose job it is to create a race of Pias. On her 17th birthday, a storm gives Pia the chance to enter the jungle beyond the walls of Little Cam for the first time. There, she meets Eio and begins a relationship with him and the other Ai’oans (the native tribe near whom Little Cam was settled). Little by little, Pia begins to doubt the total scientific detachment she has always been taught to value, and as she does, Little Cam begins to disgorge secrets that make Pia doubt that its single-minded devotion to science is as pure as she once believed. In the end, it may come down to a choice between being perfect and being human.
In Forever Young Adult’s review of Origin, Jenny suggests that this is a novel that will appeal more to some younger readers (teens, that is), and I absolutely agree, because Pia’s mindset is very sheltered. Pia knows nothing of the world outside Little Cam, not even which jungle she’s in (the Amazon). She isn’t taught history, politics, or the humanities. She can draw, but learned to do so to render specimens. She didn’t grow up with any other kids. She knows that nothing can hurt her and that she’ll never die. As such, she’s incredibly naive and non-analytical. Despite the author telling us that she is genius-level smart, we never see her intelligence in any way except her memory of chemical compounds and the Latin names for plants.
For all of these reasons, Pia is, for me, a totally unappealing character. I think she’s sympathetic, sure, and I imagine that many people will be able to identify with her frustrations about not having access to the secret of her own immortality, and her immediate attraction to Eio. But, while I’m sympathetic to the fact that Pia has been treated like a science experiment, it doesn’t make reading about her any more interesting. And, while I enjoyed learning about the secret backstory of Little Cam (because, of course, as well all know, every scientific facility that a main character thinks is squeaky clean is hiding a horrible, gruesome past), it was just one variation on a theme I’ve read many times before.
Just after finishing Origin, I was telling my sister about it, trying to explain why it had bored me. Because, don’t get me wrong: Origin is well-written, totally competently-plotted, and has a fair amount of world building. But it felt completely brittle to me—a novel engineered to be enjoyable by combining the right ingredients, just as Pia is engineered to be perfect. A strong effort in all the particulars that shattered at the slightest nudge. In particular, I was explaining to my sister that it’s the characters that really made it fall flat for me. Pia is brilliant and immortal. Brilliance and immortality are concepts that totally interest me. Yet, Pia’s immortality had no impact. Partly because she’s 17 and most 17-year-old characters don’t have to worry about mortal threats anyway; partly because she has never experienced what death is (except in lab animals) so it’s a merely quantitative characteristic for her; partly because until pretty late in the book she views immortality as a totally desirable trait; partly because everyone in Little Cam is brilliant, so it’s a meaningless distinction? Probably all of the above.
And unlike the genius of a character like Ender from Ender’s Game (who my sister cited as another character whose genius is often described as cold and detached), who is valued because of his ability to innovate, Pia is valued for her ability to execute. She’s
been fast-tracked to single-mindedly dedicate her life to the scientific pursuits for which her mentors have trained her. In this way, Jessica Khoury sets up what will be a book-long battle for Pia, between, on one hand, perfection, detachment, and the noble work of creating her race, and, on the other hand, imperfection (humanness), love, and happiness. In short, that is (as Khoury sets it up), the battle between science and nature, the battle between scientist and “savage”, the battle between knowledge and intuition, and the battle between control and impulse.
Friends, say it with me now: binaries aren’t real. Therefore, they make boring tensions in books. So, while I think that this might be a great read for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to the idea that science and nature are connected rather than opposite, or that there are different kinds of knowledge, some of which come from study and some of which come from intuition or peer-wisdom, to those of us who’ve thought such thoughts before, Origin is pretty flat.
what was this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
I feel confused about the book’s intentions because, as I mentioned, it struck me as kind of a paint-by-numbers book that took things the author or publisher knew would be appealing and applied them formulaically. If the intention here is purely to entertain, then I think many people will be entertained. The plot moves quickly and there is suspense. Oh, and there’s a jaguar that is Pia’s pet, so that’s fun to think about. There’s a romance . . . kind of. I think this is what the kids are calling “insta-love.” I was totally weirded out by Eio. For one thing, Pia has no exposure to the notion of beauty in humans, except that people tell her she’s perfect looking (in the context of being perfect in every other way, too, though). Yet, she still refers to Eio’s “abs”! I found this outrageous. Even if she had a biological reaction to the play of muscular strength under skin, I refuse to believe that she—scientist that she is—would shorten a scientific name for a muscle group and use it to describe something attractive. There, I said it. That’s been bugging me for days.
Back to business: Eio is a nice guy. He certainly loves Pia (we don’t know why—being able to love immediately seems to be part of his “jungle-ness”), cares for children, is polite to his elders, and does brave and idiotic things, like risking his life to “save” a girl who cannot die. But . . . there’s just no other way to say it: Khoury has made Eio the stereotype of the noble savage, and made him “more attractive” than the other Ai’oans (with their “flat noses” and “slant[ed]” eyes) by giving him mixed parentage (113). Meh, I dunno, y’all. I just thought Origin had it wrong on all counts. It was squirmingly exoticizing when describing the Ai’oans and their charming native myths, and it was annoyingly anti-intellectual in the picture it painted of science. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as taken by a story of science pushed too far as the next person. It’s just that there are so many books that have done it well (Frankenstein, the Uglies Series) and Origin sets up false binaries and then depends on us buying into them to wring suspense from their demolition. And did I mention that the ending is mega-predictable?
So, this is Khoury’s first novel and it got the Penguin treatment (meaning, who knows if she was asked to commercialize certain elements, etc), so I’m curious to see what she does next. Overall, I think Origin is a very competent novel that will likely appeal to a wide audience. I just don’t happen to part of that audience. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t be! So:
Because I like you so much, I want to give one lucky reader my copy of Origin! There are four easy ways you can enter to win. Just remember to tell me how you entered in the comments or your entry can’t count! You can:
1. Follow us on Twitter (@we_eat_YA)
2. Follow Crunchings & Munchings via email (go to the right sidebar of the blog and enter your email where it says “follow blog via email”)
3. Follow us on Facebook
4. Link up to crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com somewhere on your blog
I’ll announce the winner here in one week!
procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher with no compensation on either side. Origin is available now.