Saturday, September 15, 2012

Origin by Jessica Khoury

Sixteen year old Pia is the most perfect human being ever created. She is perfect and she is immortal. She has a perfect memory, acute senses, excellent reflexes, impenetrable skin and she cannot drown nor suffocate. She is the culmination of a five generation breeding program, Immortis, designed to make an immortal human being.

Pia lives in Little Cam, a research compound in the middle of the rainforest, with her mother and a group of other scientists whom she addresses a Uncle and Aunt. The head scientist is Dr. Paolo Alvez whom Pia calls Uncle Paolo. There are many other researchers there as well, all of whom Pia calls aunt or uncle. There is Uncle Antonio - her favourite, and also the one who is responsible for her education, Uncle Will a quiet, gentle man who is Pia's father, and Uncle Timothy who deals with supplies. Her mother, Sylvia, also a research scientist, lives with Pia in a little house on the western side of Little Cam. Pia's bedroom is unusual in that it has three walls and a ceiling made of glass. The newest member, Dr. Harriet Fielding whom Pia at first dislikes, becomes an ally.

At this point all Pia knows is that Immortis scientists used the elysia flower and some unknown catalyst to make her immortal. But she doesn't yet know what that catalyst is and she's desperate to find out. In 1902, scientists searching for new medicinal plants from the rainforest heard about a plant that could extend the human life span. Dr. Heinrich Falk who was in charge of the expedition located the plant; Epidendrum elysia, which cannot be grown or replanted. The plants living in the Falk's Glen now are the same ones he discovered years ago. Falk's successor Wickham established Little Cambridge Research Station and developed the Wickham tests to assess new scientists joining the project. The group experimented on rats first. Pia has been told that the nectar from elysia was combined with that of another flower to make it safe to inject into animals. It is this other flower that Pia believes is the catalyst for Immortis. When scientists injected rats with Immortis, nothing happened until the 5th generation. The immortality gene in the elysia was assimilated into the rat's genetic code making one rat, Roosevelt immortal. Dr. Falk then began experiments on humans, bringing thirty two humans to Little Cam and began injecting them with Immortis. Each generation had children and Pia is the product of that breeding program.

In order to become part of the Immortis research team, Pia is being rigorously trained and must undergo a series of tests, named Wickham tests. These tests are designed to increasingly test her ability to function rationally and without emotion in stressful and disturbing situations. Pia is beginning to become unnerved by the tests however, as they seem to be requiring increasing cruelty and emotional detachment.

Despite Pia's intensive scientific education, she knows little about the outside world. For thirty years no books, magazines or movies from the outside world have been allowed into Little Cam. Her textbooks are redacted. Only instrumental music is allowed. This is all because of some mysterious Accident which occurred thirty years ago. When recently arrived Aunt Harriet mentions the city of Manaus, Pia's curiosity gets the better of her. She tries asking Uncle Paolo but he refuses to tell her anything. Later on Harriet mentions San Francisco and Pia becomes aware of how little she knows about the outside world. On the night she turns seventeen Aunt Harriet sneaks Pia a map of the world. From this map Pia learns where she lives (Brazil and the Amazon rain forest) and begins to understand just how big the outside world is.

Coincidentally, that night she also discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds Little Cam. Pia decides to take advantage of this to sneak out into the jungle. On her first trip outside the compound, Pia meets Eio, a member of the Ai'oa tribe that lives in the Amazon jungle. Attracted to one another, Eio and Pia become friends and try to understand the different worlds they live in. Pia learns that Eio knows about elysia which his people call yresa. She also discovers that Eio's "Papi" is someone from Little Cam and that the Ai'oans believe that Little Cam is a place of evil. At first Pia thinks that this is because they do not understand the important work that the scientists are doing at the research station.

Pia wants to return to the jungle to see Eio, but she feels intense conflict. For one thing, her feelings for Eio are unscientific and make her feel wild and out of control. They are unlike anything she has ever felt but she likes the way she feels when she is with Eio. This is the opposite of the way she has been raised which is to use reason and to approach everything in a rational way, without much feeling. She also struggles with issues of loyalty. She is forbidden to leave Little Cam by Uncle Paolo, the man who created her, yet she wants to see Eio and she wants to learn more about the world at large. At first the choice seems easy, to follow Uncle Paolo, but soon Pia discovers that much at Little Cam is not as it seems, that she has been lied to and deliberately manipulated.

The situation at Little Cam slowly begins to unravel. Harriet and Pia discover that part of the compound which is suppose to have burned down, was in fact a torture chamber, leading to more questions about what really happened thirty years ago. When it is discovered that Pia has been outside the jungle her home becomes a prison, just as Eio tried to tell her.

Eventually Pia learns how she was made immortal, her connection to the Ai'oan tribe and the great evil being done at Little Cami.She must now make a choice, continuing making more immortal people like herself and perpetuating the evil of Little Cami or refuse to participate and end it. Her choices make for a suspenseful but open ending to the novel.

Origin is told through Pia's voice, which is that of a young woman struggling to make sense of her world and her existence. One of the best aspects of this novel is the development of the internal conflict Pia experiences as she learns more about the Ai'oan people and the experiments which led to her creation. She is horrified that her creation came about through the innocent death of some many people. Pia wants to live on her terms and questions whether the price of immortality is worth it. For "Uncle" Paola, immortality is all that matters. For Pia, some things are simply wrong and the end does not justify the means.

There are many interesting questions that Origin raises, especially in our age when we have genetically manipulated crops and animals. Many scientists continue to struggle towards the goal of cloning and also to lengthening human life span, continuing to assure us that these are noble goals that will benefit mankind. What is the cost to human beings on a personal level and what is the cost to society of such manipulation? Is how we view the human body important to these questions? And what are the effects on the ecological systems of our planet as we play God and manipulate life without understanding the full effect of what we are doing?

Jessica Khoury does a great job of developing her characters, which are realistic and develop as the story moves along. Pia is naive and tends to think well of others but her curiosity allows her to quickly learn what is happening and to see that those she thought were concerned about her have very different goals in mind. Eio is faithful to death if necessary. He warns his Pia bird not to return to her cage as Dr. Paola Alvez is a megalomaniac, bent on seeing his project to its daring ending.

Enjoy the well done book trailer by Penguin Books:

Book Details:
Origin by Jessica Khoury
Toronto: RazorBill an imprint of Penquin Group Inc. (USA)
394 pp.

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