Hazel McHaffie

genetic defects

Perfect people

Imagine if you’d lost a child to a rare genetic disorder at the age of four … You know that neither your sanity nor your marriage could survive watching another one die … Then along comes a charismatic doctor who offers you … not only eradication of the rogue gene you both carry, but subtle improvements on nature too … if you choose them.

What would you do? (I went part way down this path in researching for my own novel, Saving Sebastian – a ‘designer baby’ with a difference; so of course I’m instantly drawn to the question behind Peter James‘ novel, Perfect People.)

You know enough to realise that tampering with the germline is serious stuff: there’s no going back. You’d be altering something fundamental which will be carried on in future generations. But then … where’s the harm in choosing a child who won’t need much sleep when he grows up? Or who won’t put on too much weight? Or who’s got excellent hand-eye co-ordination? Why not? Future progeny would be grateful to inherit such characteristics, wouldn’t they? You’ll be sensible, of course you will; you won’t be seduced by the idea of genius, or film-star looks, or Olympic medal sporting prowess. You only want what’s best for your child. Like every other normal parent.

Perfect PeopleIn Perfect People,  Dr Leo Detorre promises all this. More than that, he persuades couples that naturally-formed babies will, in 40 years time, have become the ‘genetic underclass’. They owe it to their child to give him/her the advantages of genetic enhancement. Anything less would be a dereliction of their parental responsibility.

Swedish scientist, Dr John Klaesson, and his British wife, Naomi, have every reason to want to eliminate the risk of inherited diseases.  Their little boy Halley died from the consequences of a fatal defect carried by them both. They know they can’t cope with a repeat of that. But they have a one in four risk. Dr Detorre is their only hope.

He maps both parents’ genomes; he lists a shocking multiplicity of defects they are susceptible to. He promises to eradicate all the risks. For an eye-watering sum of money. They’re desperate; prepared to borrow way beyond their means, in order to have one healthy child. A boy. And they’re restrained: Dr Detorre offers them far more than they’re prepared to accept. They simply want a child free from disease with a little advantage or two, and they do a lot of heart searching before allowing even that little enhancement.

Once they’ve set the ball in motion, everything feels surreal. They’re flown to a floating offshore clinic way out in the ocean, isolated from all human contact ‘to avoid any contamination’ of any kind. For tests. For injections. For the conception itself.

But afterwards, back at home, in the humdrum reality of everyday normality, everything starts to assume a quite different perspective. If he’s so clever, why did Dr Detorre get the gender wrong? How come he introduced more than one embryo? – things any ordinary embryologist or fertility specialist knows how to do routinely.

Misgivings ratchet up to a whole new level when sinister things start to happen. A bomb destroys the brain behind the scientific revolution. The Klaesson secret gets out; the world’s media react. The twins start to show weird behaviours, precocious abilities, and worrying physical and psychological anomalies.

Other families treated by Dr Detorre are massacred horribly. A sect called The Disciples of the Third Millenium declare themselves determined to stamp out this work of Satan. And one of the Disciples is stalking the Klaessons.

Tested almost beyond endurance by the twins’ behaviour, John and Naomi are nevertheless devastated when the youngsters vanish, apparently willingly accompanying a murderer. And in the search for their children, they gradually uncover the truth behind Dr Detorre’s work and the appalling consequences for their family.

OK, there are some rather unbelievable features to this sci-fi thriller and some irritating linguistic flaws, but I found it was a real page turner of a book.  And a cautionary tale to boot. Be careful what you wish for! The author says there were times when he thought he’d tackled too complex a topic this time. He did; but for me he pulled it off. I didn’t actually care that the genetic disease was fictional, or that the parents were naive, or the outcome predictable. There’s a price to be paid for sticking too closely to the facts, and I think James made some choices for the sake of dramatic tension that paid off. It’s not a treatise about genetic engineering; it’s a novel! Enjoy!


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