Even more for the utopia and dystopia than many other forms of speculative writing, a fiction’s world is pivotal to a reader’s engagement. It can be elevated from a mere backdrop to the very (however disguised) subject of the book, its hook as well as its raison d’être; such a story’s characters are a means by which to explore and humanise the setting. The Museum of Second Chances imagines a society that is compelling and thematically rich. Its premise is a self-professed eco-utopia, but one in which inherited collective guilt is deployed as a spurious, semi-mythic justification for state power. This artfully plays with ambiguities in a genre that can sometimes overindulge gauche satire, if not bludgeoning didacticism. And even when exploring established motifs (genetic modification, revised official histories) it does so with an inventive wit that relates everything to its heroes.
We enter a post-apocalyptic world, but one that has long recovered from the material environmental disaster that gave rise to its status quo. Humanity is focussed on avoiding a repetition of its destructive mistakes, organising according to policies favouring a sustainability that is part technological, but also part unequally-applied austerity. This makes for a novel combination in which some aspects of the lifestyle of the characters feels anachronistic (a pastoral vision of village communities), while other aspects are futuristic (such as the available, but not perfectly distributed, medical, surveillance and bio technologies). At the heart of this world are technologically advanced museums housing various revived species of animal that humanity previously pushed into extinction, a testament to the society’s priorities and values.
The titular museum is poignant, multifaceted and contradictory, which the fictional counterparts to real institutions can so often fail to be. AE Warren envisions these places as temples whose goal is to ideologically reinforce a dubious government philosophy predicated on a secular caste system, in which the non-genetically modified (Sapiens) are disempowered and condescended (blamed for the past) by their ‘superiors’ (enhanced Mediusand deified Potiors). But as well as a bastion of oppressive power, the museum is a testament to an ideal set against its regressive authoritarian aims (one of preservation and Enlightenment cataloguing). Here, Warren demonstrates a talent for the genre; clearly envisioning from its roots how the imagined society might undermine itself.
We experience this world directly through the point of view of Elise, a Sapien brought in as a Companion (a handler to a Neanderthal named Twenty-One or Kit) to tackle a delicate problem. Our protagonist is simultaneously adrift but enmeshed in her world and, importantly, its troubled and violent history. She is not the only character that further adds delicate complexity to the novel: there are many notables and all contribute succinctly to the evolving story, from the awkward and aloof Medius called Samuel, to the jaded SapienCompanion, Luca. Just as every element of the novel’s world adds something, whether it is tiny flying cameras that detect physiological cues for heightened emotions or a carefully contrived political economy to maintain Sapien poverty. At each point, the author has considered and developed each aspect (the world, people and consequences) to form a narrative that disturbs, delights and provokes.
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(Previously published on Medium)