Ballista Press: 2019
Review by Megan Turney
Jacques St-Malo’s Cognition is a near-future technothriller revolving around the micro and macro consequences of a society that has successfully ventured into the precarious world of ‘germline manipulation’, with a particular focus on genetically modifying intellect. St-Malo’s novel is experimental in both theme and form; not only is his exploration of how such monumental developments in eugenics can deeply affect humanity’s attitudes to our existence and societal structures, but the complex narrative structure also provides an equally demanding and thought-provoking read. By delving into multiple perspectives, St-Malo manages to capture numerous diverse reactions to just how profoundly these transformational scientific developments can disturb our fundamental understanding of the ‘self’.
This narrative form was somewhat overwhelming in the first half of the book. I still enjoyed the various, fast-paced snapshots of the wildly differing points of view, but I couldn’t always work out what the relevancy of one chapter meant to the next. For example, I wasn’t entirely sure how one interaction between two teenagers in England could possibly be relevant to a meeting of military personnel in China. Yet, St-Malo slowly but skilfully connects these seemingly disjointed storylines; so much so that I suddenly found myself just a few chapters away from the end of the book, surprised that all my questions were somehow answered. In this sense, Cognition successfully captures the wide-scale, divisive global reactions to such an immense change to what we conceive as our collective humanity, such as through an explosive US presidential election and looming international warfare, whilst managing to stop and focus on those vital, intimate interactions that serve as a powerful reminder of what it actually means to be human, genetically modified or not.
However, before recommending Cognition, I should mention that there were unfortunately a few elements of the writing style that marred my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. I’m sure that I’m in the minority of readers here though, considering the amount of 5 star reviews and prestigious awards St-Malo has received in the last year, what with winning the ‘Independent Press Award’ and the ‘National Indie Excellence Award’. Regardless, I found a few points of contention with the narrative style, with a significant and repetitive one being that the narrative voice often came across as decidedly male. Although I certainly don’t have any issues with male authors writing from their female characters’ perspectives, or alternatively exploring the concept of masculinity, there were some glaring hypocrisies between how the narrative voice continued to negatively regard the roles of the women compared to those of the men.
And, even though I do appreciate the substantial female characters St-Malo included in the text, there were still so many instances in which there were unnecessary physical descriptions, which tended to include references to their level of attractiveness, but with a significant lack of any references to the men’s bodies or attractiveness at all, unless it was positive and benefitted them. For instance, when introducing Commander Lin Mei Hsieh, she is on the one hand described as being ‘the ablest person in [Admiral Feng’s] staff’, whilst simultaneously having her success labelled as the result of Admiral Feng having not had ‘his way with her’ in the hope that ‘the establishment would one day give him credit for discovering her’. Or, as I perceived this part of the narrative, that her success is defined by the fact that a senior, male member of the military decided not to seduce her, rather than her success being a direct result of her hard work and skill.
Furthermore, even with the fact that the plot is driven almost entirely by the actions of the women, many of which (although not all) are decisive, heroic acts, the narrative consistently pushes the reader to empathise with the male characters, by focussing on their reasoning behind their actions, or what their reactions and opinions are, even if the men’s actions were illogical or had very little to do with the outcome. This was particularly confusing in the pivotal interactions between Nadia and Taylor, as well as Ron and Stacey. Having been published in 2019, I was somewhat disappointed to find this kind of perspective in such a progressive genre as science fiction. This didn’t necessarily overshadow the other skilful and entertaining ways that St-Malo tackles the complex topic of eugenics, but I would have enjoyed the novel much more had this not have been such a distinct and repetitive issue.
My only other problem with the text was that there were times at which the narrative voice seemed detached from the story and would stray into long sections dedicated to author’s personal opinions, or to thoroughly explain certain theories and concepts, rather than allowing the reader to experience the natural interactions as they happen and fill in their own knowledge, or to even leave room for the reader to look up some of the references themselves. I would personally rather be thrown into a story and experience it from the characters’ authentic experiences and perspectives, rather than having the author pause or shape the narrative artificially to spell out something that doesn’t necessarily need explaining. However, my favourite kinds of science fiction are those texts where the authors successfully manage to weave genuine scientific advancements into the story, to use literature as a way of playing out some of the potential, human consequences those developments may have. So, although I did struggle to get past a few issues with St-Malo’s writing style, I still enjoyed the sheer amount of physics and philosophy references incorporated into the text, and the way in which St-Malo used those different concepts and theories as integral elements of the plot. The extensive research and knowledge of such a variety of different fields made Cognition an impressive and grounded approach to the risky topic of eugenics in science fiction.