To sci-fi fans, Sergei Lukyanenko is best known as the author of the Night Watch series (Night Watch, Day Watch, Twilight Watch, Last Watch, and New Watch) and the movies they inspired (Night Watch, Day Watch). But he’s actually one of the most popular modern writers in Russia. With his 1999 novel The Genome coming to the U.S. for the first time (paperback, digital), I spoke with him about the roots of this sci-fi detective novel.
First off, for those who haven’t read it, what is The Genome about, and where did you get the original idea for it?
The idea came about from my first profession, from being a psychiatrist. I believed that the most common psychological problem with people is their dissatisfaction with life, especially with their work and career. As we are coming closer and closer to the ability to control the genome of a person and to give newborns certain qualities or abilities — for example, to choose sex, color of eyes and hair, give mathematical or musical abilities — I tried to extrapolate it into the future. Let us imagine the world where the majority of people are happy with what they do because they are genetically compatible with their work and are programmed to love it. The state pays for programming for certain jobs — such as workers, soldiers, or clerks — as they are always needed. But you have to pay yourself for more exotic or attractive ones. The price regulates the number of future actresses and models, plastic surgeons, and brilliant lawyers. Your whole body will be compatible with your future work, but the main thing is that you will love it.
On one hand, this world seems attractive and harmonious. But on the other, it’s a bit scary, to some extent even scarier than the caste societies of the past.
The Genome has been described as being equal parts science fiction and detective novel. First, do you agree with this assessment?
Absolutely. I often use detective elements in my books. I love detective novels. But I also think science fiction and detective stories are very close and friendly genres, which shows in the books by Isaac Azimov, John Brunner, and Glen Cook.
However, whilst even a tiny drop of science fiction may harm a detective story, a little detective element benefits science fiction. Such a strange puzzle.
So then what detective novels, comics, and movies, do you think were an influence on the detective aspects of the novel?
I don’ think I had any outside influences. I created the world of genetically modified people, and while there were similar ideas in science fiction before, no one described it the same way as I did. I then put the most strange and incredible characters in it and added a situation of a “locked-room mystery,” which means that we know for sure that the killer is one of a very small group of people.
It’s actually been suggested that the American TV show Columbo was a big influence.
Oh, you uncovered my little secret. Yes, I’ve seen the show and enjoyed it enormously. And when I needed to introduce a visiting detective in my novel, I called him Peter Falk after the wonderful actor in the show.
You talked earlier about genetic engineering in The Genome. In deciding how you’d depict it in the book, did you do any research?
My medical education helped a bit, but I also had to do a lot of research. However, I soon realised that if I followed the scientific reality too thoroughly, it would restrict the plot. That is why I sometimes had to choose between science and fantasy, and science had to give in.
The Genome was originally published in 1999, and is actually the second in a series that included the prequel Dances On The Snow and a sequel story called Cripples. When you sat down to write The Genome, was it always part of the plan that it would be the middle part of a trilogy?
Yes, that’s correct. I intended to write The Genome as the middle part of the trilogy, to depict a very strange world and to do it in a bit of a “naughty” manner. Then I wrote Dances On The Snow where the action takes place a few hundred years before The Genome. There I depicted a completely different world. And the book is completely different; it was meant for teenagers. As an example, sex was tabooed in Dances, contrary to a completely sexually liberated world in The Genome.
But at the same time, I showed in Dances how the world of The Genome came by and where it originated from. The third book is only being planned; it will show the world of The Genome in the future, a few hundred years later. It will show the results of playing with the genotype…
The Genome is now being released in the U.S. for the first time. Is there anything different about this edition compared to the original Russian version?
Like I already said, the world of The Genome is very extravagant, provocative, and liberated, including sexually. What do you expect from the world where people like insects may go through a “pupation” stage and grow up from a child to an adult in just a few years?
So, one of the female characters in the Russian version, Kim O’Hara, is fourteen years old. This does not stop her from being a genetically modified spy and a courtesan. And she, like a few other characters, has sex with the main character.
But while this is quite common in fiction — Shakespeare’s Juliet was only 13 — I was still amused when the U.S. publisher proposed changing her age to seventeen. Though they ultimately decided not to.
Most people in the U.S. know you as the guy who wrote the books that inspired the movie Night Watch and Day Watch. Has there been any interest in turning The Genome into a movie?
This is the inevitable consequence of a popular movie: you become the guy who wrote “the book that inspired the movie.” Frankly speaking, I find it a bit insulting. I’ve written about three dozen books, and I think at least half of them are better than Night Watch. But they are less known, especially outside Russia.
There is an interest in The Genome, but the Russian producers are still a bit wary of making a full scale space movie. So, if any Hollywood producers are interested, they should contact my literary agent.
If The Genome does get made into a movie, and they let you pick who would direct it and star in it, who would you pick?
Oh, this is a very interesting question. Let’s fantasize, why not? I believe that James Cameron would be a very good director, he likes science fiction, but he must be too busy making Avatar 2. He also likes 3D, and I don’t.
So, not Cameron! Then, maybe Ridley Scott? I was thinking about his Blade Runner when I was writing the first pages of The Genome. And he is not afraid of science fiction. Or maybe Christopher Nolan for the same reason.
I would invite Anton Yelchin to play the main character. He is of Russian origin like the main character, though nationalities are irrelevant in the world of The Genome. I would ask Chloë Grace Moretz to play Kim O’Hara. She already played a superhero and a vampire, and she’s seventeen years old, like we’d talked about changing Kim’s age to. Janet Ruelo, this should be Aisha Tyler, while Pak Generalov should be Johnny Depp.
Finally, if someone read The Genome and really liked it, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why? And to keep things interesting, let’s assume they can read Russian and get books from Russia, so you’re not limited to just the books of yours that have come out in the U.S.
I think I would recommend Dances On The Snow, despite it being a completely different book. If you like space adventures, I would recommend The Line Of Dreams and Emperors Of Illusions. They are my major space books with lots of planets, civilizations, cultures…as well as fights and intrigues. And immediately after that you should read Cold Shores and its sequel Morning Is Close. These are the strangest and maybe my best books. But I am too scared to tell you about the plot in case it is not appropriate for an American reader. We here in Russia are used to freedom of speech and democracy and as a result we may sometimes think of very unusual stories.