Friday, September 07, 2018

Warren, Museum of Second Chances (2018)

A.E. Warren, The Museum of Second Chances. Locutions Press, 2018. Pp. 319. ISBN 978-1-9999199-0-0. $11.99 pb/$3.99 e.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

Imagine visiting a museum that houses woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, giant sloths and Neanderthal Man—not just as displays, but as living, breathing entities. You may not be able to go there physically—at least, not yet—but A.E. Warren’s futuristic novel The Museum of Second Chances will transport you there in the world of imagination. The time setting for The Museum of Second Chances is set isn’t stated explicitly. What we do know is that it’s almost 200 years after the extinction of the chameleon. Since just over a third of our world’s chameleon species are endangered currently, that may not be so far away as we think.

The backdrop to Warren’s novel is as follows. A global pandemic followed by food shortages has almost wiped out the human population. Untreated water is deemed unsafe, and only four known human settlements, or “bases,” exist, each with their own area of specialization (manufacturing, learning, etc.). These bases of occupancy are separated by rough terrain, and the trek between them is not an easy one, particularly if you don’t happen to have a supply of sanitized water to take with you.

Pushed to desperation by their near-extinction, Homo Sapiens, known in the novel more briefly as “Sapiens,” has experimented with genetic engineering. The outcome of this tinkering has resulted in two new types of human: “Homo Medius,” or “Man in the Middle,” and the exalted “Homo Potior,” or “Superior Man". A class system based on these distinct strains of human has evolved. Sapiens occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and are mostly confined to performing manual labor including production of goods. Sapiens are taught that their “species” is responsible for many evils, including destruction of the rain forest and exterminating almost all other species. As a result, the Potiors have imposed a number of Decrees, with the intention of forcing the Sapiens to make reparations for their past sins.

The Museum of Second Chances revolves around the experiences of a young Sapiens woman, Elise Thanton, who has just landed her dream job at the Museum of Evolution on Thymine Base. Though her duties will require her to live full-time at the Museum with the exception of visits home on weekends, Elise welcomes the opportunity. It’s an escape from a lifetime of 11-hour shifts at the local manufacturing facility. Elise’s father Aiden and her mother Sofi have their reservations about this job, but stop just short of forbidding Elise to accept the employment offer. Aiden, who is paranoid for reasons that are divulged later in the novel, believes that Elise would be better served by keeping a low profile, particularly since she has some skills the Medius and Potiors don’t know about, and he thinks it best to keep it that way.

To redress the wrongs committed by the Sapiens, the Potiors are diligently working at bringing back extinct species. This includes living things from the distant past, such as sabre-tooth tigers, mammoths, dodos, and even an earlier species of man, the Neanderthals. Neanderthals are assigned numerical names based on the sequence in which they were created. Elise’s job is to be a “Companion” to one of the Neanderthals, who is officially known as “Twenty-One,” although he also has a name he prefers to be called by, Kit.

The Companion job is necessary for a grim reason. Historically, Neanderthals were clan people. The Potiors have decided against allowing them to live in groups in the Museums, fearing that warfare between clans might decimate the population, thereby wasting a significant investment in time and resources. However, due to the stresses of solitary living, many of the earliest Neanderthals artificially reproduced by the Potiors became depressed and committed suicide. The Companion program evolved as a countermeasure to this issue. The program pairs up a Sapiens with a Neanderthal, to be company for them.

For reasons not fully articulated in the novel (I assumed related to differing physiology), Neanderthals are not able to form speech in the same way as modern humans. Sign language is used as communication between Neanderthals and their more modern counterparts. This isn’t a problem for Elise. Sign language is used as a form of communication within her family because of her younger brother Nathan, who lost his hearing in a childhood accident.

At first, Kit barely acknowledges Elise’s presence. But she gradually draws Kit out of his shell, first by teaching him how to weave mats out of the grasses in his pod, and then by coming up with the idea of practicing hunting and gathering skills, including spear-throwing and fire-making, to keep him occupied.

As the plot builds, we learn that some members of the Sapiens population are chafing under the limitations imposed by the Potiors, and want to strive for a form of self-government. An underground movement is afoot to undermine the Potiors’ authority. Even at the Museum, it’s becoming clear that the Potiors don’t have matters in as tight control as they’d like to let on. A case in point is mysterious containment failures at the Museum of Evolution which result in creatures escaping their enclosures and creating mayhem within the facility.

As the weeks go by, Elise’s dream job loses some of its lustre—not because of Kit, but because of the way the powers-that-be prioritize the Museum’s reputation over the Neanderthals’ quality of life. Meanwhile, on her weekly visits back home, Elise learns that her brother Nathan has been bullied because of his deafness. To make matters worse, her best friend Holly starts hanging around with an individual named Lewis Thetter, who is trying to pressure Elise to support the Sapiens’ underground revolution.

Tension continues to build as the novel works its way toward resolution, with Warren making some surprising but believable revelations near the end.

I felt the novel’s portrayal of the class structure within this post-apocalyptic world was one of its strengths. The differences are highlighted by certain cultural conventions. One example is in the structure of names. Sapiens’ names have two syllables, Medius three, and Potiors four. The Neanderthals (when they aren’t being referred to by their number) are given one-syllable names. So, in this future society you learn a lot about a person just from their name. For some, such as the Medius named Harriet who guides Elise around on her first day, this leads to a form of snobbery. Harriet takes great pains to fully enunciate all three syllables of her name so there’s no mistake about her status.

Even within the settlement Elise lives in, distinction are made between people based on where they live. For example, Elise’s family lives in an area known as the “Outer Circle,” in contrast to the more privileged who live on the Middle, or even the Inner, Circles. Sapiens are “encouraged to spend most of their time” (137) in their own district; and the Outer Circle is where Elise feels safe.

Sapiens’ ability to accumulate possessions is controlled. Sapiens are given “tickets,” or stamps, with which they purchase the necessities of life, including food. The tickets aren’t physical pieces of paper, but rather electronic credits in the family or personal account. These tickets can also be converted into a special kind of currency called Medi-Stamps, to be used in the event of a severe injury. Sapiens, however, must spend their tickets within a certain amount of time: “Decree Number 7 said that Sapiens were not allowed to hoard tickets; history had shown that they could not be trusted with the accumulation of currency” (136). While Medi-Stamps have a longer shelf life, all other types of tickets expire within a month of issue. This effectively prevents Sapiens from amassing wealth.

However, not all is bleak for the Sapiens. Hope for the future is provided through a monthly lottery, through which Sapiens can win the opportunity to have genetic tweaking in one of their offspring: “Three altered traits made you a Medius; ten would make you a Potior” (13). Otherwise, Sapiens have no access to genetic engineering, and have to content themselves with “whatever shuffled genes they inherited from their parents and grandparents” (13).

Despite the Medius’ superior attitude, they aren’t necessarily better than Sapiens. On numerous occasions, Elise notes the way Harriet’s personal hygiene (spilling food on herself and not noticing although remnants are still clinging to her blouse, for example) mars the image of perfection Harriet herself thinks she portrays. While Harriet looks down on Elise, Elise’s Medius supervisor Samuel is different. Although socially inept, Samuel is not unkind toward Elise, and treats her as an equal when it comes to talking about Kit’s care.

Aside from significant changes in social structure, The Museum of Second Chances portrays other imaginative takes on how a future world might look. In Warren’s future society, emphasis is placed on re-use. Elise’s family’s home, like the neighboring houses, is “made of panels of recycled material from old car tyres, plastics and glass” (3). Because of its role in the pandemic, water is no longer trusted. Though there is a stream near Elise’s house, “none of the locals would drink or swim in it. The fear of reinfection was too great” (3). Only treated water, delivered to the household tanks daily, is used. Water for showers is rationed. Showers are “set on timers, one press per family member” (94) with 90 seconds worth of water being allotted to each person.

In terms of writing style, Warren uses subtle humor in places. This is something I always appreciate as a reader. As well, Warren uses vivid imagery that enabled me to clearly imagine the settings described. I particularly enjoyed the depictions of the ancient species occupying the Museum, Kit’s living quarters, Elise’s family home, and the Museum itself. While world building was a strength of the novel, I felt that characterization and plot had a few areas that could be shored up. In terms of characterization, Elise was a protagonist I could empathize with and root for. However, some of the antagonistic characters were just plain annoying, and I didn’t find them well rounded. I found it coincidental that a couple of Elise’s antagonists from the old neighborhood showed up in job roles at the Museum. One person, maybe. Two seems more than might be attributable to chance. I also found some of the “villains” were overly one-dimensional. One example is the doctor, Benjamin.

During one fight scene, there is a lot of time devoted to one character breaking another’s fingers one by one, and one question that occurred to me is, would he really be spending his time doing this? Why? Is he sadistic? (We haven’t really seen that side of him up to that point). I’d have preferred more insight into what is driving him. Is it the “warrior gene” taking over? Or some other explanation? I felt there was room for more nuance here.

In terms of plot, up to about two-thirds of the way through the story, I had no issue with how things progressed. Everything seemed believable and logical within the context of the story. However, at one point Kit expresses a desire to escape from the museum, and go somewhere he can see others of his kind. That’s completely understandable on his part.

What was more difficult to understand was how easily the other characters went along with hatching a plan to spring Kit free. There are only 14 Neanderthals, including Kit, in existence. Maybe communication between the bases isn’t great, but surely if someone from Thymine base starts walking around with a Neanderthal at one of the other settlements, it’ll raise some questions. So what exactly did they think they were going to do? A solution appears at the end of the book, but I found it a bit naive that Elise and the others would go along with a plan without at least raising or discussing the issues around it and coming to some degree of resolution.

The final chapter ends in a spot that would have been okay as an ending, but left some questions. Then there’s an epilogue that answers many of the open questions. That was fine in terms of wrapping up loose ends, although I wondered why do it as an epilogue and not as a concluding chapter. As for the epilogue itself, I felt the ending three paragraphs were too abrupt, and could have been smoothed out. On the other hand, to Warren’s credit, there were twists at the conclusion of the novel that I wasn’t expecting, so I don’t think readers could complain that the ending was telegraphed.

Although I’ve pointed out some areas that I felt could have been rendered differently, I still enjoyed the book. Warren’s vision of the social structure was well-developed and multi-layered. The notion of “reparations” being required from the Sapiens was also interesting. Overall, I felt The Museum of Second Chances was a thought-provoking and enjoyable read with intriguing premises and an original setting.

Warren has a sequel in the works, entitled The Base of Reflections, due out in 2019—so readers who enjoy The Museum of Second Chances have—well—a second chance to explore Warren’s futuristic world. That’s something to look forward to.

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