Reviewed by Joshua Ryan Bligh
A pensive story that asks the big timeless questions
What is good? Are we of nature or nurture?
Dustin Grinnell’s speculative novel The Empathy Academy takes readers on a whirl of morality in the near future. Pulling from philosophical and psychological sources spanning two millennia, the story allows readers to encounter moral morsels and lessons, spanning from grand-daddies Aristotle & Seneca to more modern thinkers like Carl Sagan. All of this packaged in a tale that expresses highly relevant concerns with the undue impact that capitalism has on science and medicine.
When protagonist Monty Hughes discovers his father has been falsifying research on a new cancer treatment, he absconds to an experimental education facility on Nantucket Island. The deal: the school aims to correct deviant behaviors and mentality through a regimen of philosophy and hand-on field days. But something darker lurks behind the façade, and the shady Dr. Woodward running the show has bigger plans to use the school as a testing ground for a gene-altering therapy (based on real-life CRISPR tech) to induce morality from the cellular level.
Much like the curriculum in the eponymous Empathy Academy, Grinnell’s story serves as a speed-round primer for morality. As we shadow Monty’s education, the reader will encounter some of the key questions asked by influential minds over the past two thousand years. While each individual idea does not get much screen time itself, the effect is that readers can be presented with questions and ideas that rarely, if ever, crop up in public school curriculum. Young readers may get the most out of the experience, being introduced to threads they can later follow on their own, breadcrumbs as it were into the larger world of ethics and philosophy.
The full buffet of concepts on morality sometimes works in favor of the story, especially when an idea plays into key choices characters must later make. However, the education aspect of the book can feel like it waters down the story and narrative pacing, which does not get into full swing until about halfway through the book. The regular incorporation of other thinkers’ ideas sometimes works, but other times feels like lulls in an otherwise interesting premise, leaving me occasionally with a “lectured at” feel.
The Empathy Academy is packed with ideas that can do a great service to readers. It provides a digestible array of questions, concepts, and lessons that could blossom into something big for younger readers to take with them into the rest of their lives.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Science Fiction
Print Length: 246 pages
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