Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be physically perfect?
Everyone, even the healthiest of us, suffers the bumps and bruises of life. We scrape our knees, catch colds, and get nasty sunburns if we fall asleep uncovered on the beach. Then, despite our best efforts to stave off the aging process, we get old, put on or lose some weight, develop wrinkles and gray hair (if we have any hair left at all), and eventually die.
But imagine being born and growing up to never know such everyday weaknesses. Imagine what it would be like to never get sick, never age past a certain peak point, and never, ever die. This is what life is like for Pia, the world’s first and only immortal being, but is perfection worth the price?
Jessica Khoury’s debut novel, "Origin," is set in a secret compound deep in the Amazon jungle. Although Little Cam’s scientists spend their days engaging in a variety of experiments, the facility’s primary focus and crowning achievement is one girl, Pia. After five generations of selected breeding and genetic modifications through injections of the Immortis drug, the scientists have managed to “create” an immortal.
Sixteen-year-old Pia’s life has a focus: to advance in her studies and eventually take over as head scientist of the facility. Once she is a full member of the Immortis team, she can help make others like herself and become the matriarch of an entirely new race of humans, beings who in addition to living forever come equipped with puncture-proof skin, enhanced senses, and extraordinary intelligence. To help her achieve the destiny they have designed for her, the scientists have carefully controlled the information Pia is exposed to. Math and science are fully explored, but subjects that could distract her from the goal they have set for her, such as geography, literature, and history, are kept from her.
Hence, Pia knows almost nothing of the outside world beyond what she picks up from overheard conversations of Little Cam’s other residents, nor does she even know where the research facility is located. Her days mainly consist of studying, conducting experiments or being experimented on, and periodically taking one of the Wickham tests. The latter are possibly the only truly stressful parts of her existence, as their purpose is to gauge whether or not she is ready to become a full-fledged scientist. In other words, can she push her emotions aside enough to complete the task at hand, even if that means hurting or killing a test subject?
Perhaps Pia would have continued on the course the scientists had laid out for her if she hadn’t discovered the hole in the fence. Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, once Pia decides to pass through the rabbit hole, her world forever changes. Once in the jungle she is so dazzled by her new freedom and its associated emotions that she doesn’t see the boy before colliding into him. Eoi is close to her age and one of the Ai’oans, a tribal group that lives nearby. Like Pia, though, he is unique. While his mother was Ai’oan, he was secretly fathered by one of the scientists from the compound.
The further Pia ranges into forbidden territory through her friendship with Eoi and her clandestine visits to his village, the more she begins to question her role in the world and the morality of Little Cam’s activities. And as she discovers some of the compound’s mysteries that have been kept from her, she has to decide just whose side in the battle of ethics she needs to be on.
Khoury poses a variety of thought-provoking questions in her book. She's a graduate of Toccoa Falls College, and her Christian education and background impact the story heavily even though the novel itself could not be classified as a Christian work. Biblical allusions abound, such as a tribal leader stating that “the noblest life is the one laid down for another” and the theme that there is no life without the shedding of blood. Additionally, the moral dilemmas that Pia encounters are similar to the ones found throughout the Christian experience, but on a different scale.
Despite these elements, there are some aspects of the book that may be troubling to some Christian readers. The author has included mild profanity, shamanism that is viewed as acceptable, and some sensuality. Sexual tension and related allusions are relatively tame in the novel, but they are there none the less. Overall, though, Khoury is to be commended for crafting an enjoyable and well-written story that will give her readers some food for thought.
The reviewer’s copy of “Origin” was purchased at a local bookstore.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.