Book: Lullaby

This science fiction novel tackles problems of identity. By Drew Turney.

By Bernard Beckett
Text Publishing (2015)

New Zealand author Bernard Beckett’s biggest strength isn’t that he is able to convey high-minded sci-fi concepts to his usual audience of young adult readers – it is the power of the concepts themselves. His 2005 novel Genesis raises a grand philosophical theme before a final-sentence twist that shines an extraordinary new light on what has come before.

For a while Lullaby might make you think he’s moved away from any sci-fi elements (Beckett doesn’t consider his work as primarily science-fiction), but around page 60 he reveals we are in a world of astonishing technological possibility.

A teenage boy named Rene sits with his identical twin brother Theo in hospital, the latter in a coma which is likely to be permanent. Rene is taken away and interviewed by psychologist Maggie to determine his emotional suitability for a procedure that’s hinted at but not explained.

Through talking to Maggie and reminiscing inside his own head, Rene imparts how he and Theo used to play a game on friends and peers – sometimes for days at a time – where they’d dress as each other and take the role of the other brother. Until he sits down with Maggie to relate it, Rene does not know he and his brother were testing the fluidity of individual identity – a motif that forms the theme of the book.

The jaw-dropping moment comes when a doctor talks about the futuristic procedure under consideration. Because Theo’s neuro-connected mind rather than his physical brain is damaged, a scan of Rene’s brain can be taken and implanted in his brother’s head.

Theo will awaken with a virtual copy of Rene’s memories and sense of self while living inside his own body – prompting the question of what identity means. It’s exciting to see a recent scientific concept such as the connectome (a map of neural connections in the brain) used to drive dramatic tension and ask big questions.

Most of the book concerns Rene’s melancholy and false bravado as he tries not to let on how lost and scared he is to the psychologist. The science provides a thrilling backdrop.

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