The Biopunk Reader

12Aug/110

Kathryn Lasky’s STAR SPLIT

I have a soft spot for the un-punk in 'punk stories: not the rebels, the runners, and the radicals, but the everyday person, the unassuming, and the innocent.

Kathryn Lasky's middle-grade novel Star Split is a biopunk complete with bio rads, an underground movement, and a dictator-style government that fancies itself a "democracy." But the story isn't about the rads or the rebels. The heroine is a victim.

The year is 3038. Much hasn't changed from the late 20th century. "In-line skates" are still in, families still watch television together, and junior high students still go on field trips to museums.

But then, much has changed.

Scores of words have been lost to the English language. "Soul" is one. Others have lost their original meaning and transformed over the centuries like many words do...including the word "original."

The "democratic" government is apparently no longer elected. Instead, a single woman--the "Prima"--has ruled the nation of the Bio Union for hundreds of years. She rules as a succession of umbula, one after the other. "Umbula" means clone; the word "clone" itself is another that has been lost to the English language.

In Star Split, a person is believed to be the sum total of her DNA and so to be umbellated--to be cloned--is to live on. Only select people in the Bio Union are chosen for umbellation. That is, for immortality. For anyone else to be umbellated is to commit the highest crime. And the person, her umbula, and anyone else responsible for the crime are incinerated.

The novel is smattered with biopunk nougats. We've got Bio Rads, genetic crimes and genetic police, and cyberpunk-style abbreviated agencies like GENPOL and BOG. Then we have two separate classes of humans that are separated by a single chromosome. "Genhants"--humans enhanced with a 48th chromosome--live in an elevated society above the "Originals," those humans who have only the standard set of human chromosomes.

In my opinion, this is a concept story more than a character-or plot-driven one (in my humble opinion, it fails at both plot and characterization). It exists to get its point across--one a lot like Brave New World. Most of the action happens in the heroine's head, and the author skips past many scenes in which anything happens outside of the character, so what I got was a pasted-together string of inner dialogue, philosophizing, and recalled events.

While I found the mechanics questionable and the world-building lazy, I think Star Split is an okay quick read that poses some deep questions for young readers. What is the meaning of life? What makes two "races" different? What is free choice? What is a soul?

--Christine

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