James, Peter - 'Perfect People'
PERFECT PEOPLE, a stand-alone novel from well-known crime writer Peter James, is actually less of a crime novel, and more a work of science fiction. The main theme of the story is 'designer' babies, with all the bad genes taken out and quite a few of the good ones 'enhanced'. Not something that can be done in the real world. It deals with the potential consequences for the babies and their parents, and the reactions of others, and in particular those of religious sects.
The book opens as the two main characters, Dr John Klaesson and his wife Naomi, board a boat moored outside territorial waters but close to New York, where they have come to undergo fertility treatment. They recently lost a child Halley, to the rare Dreyens-Sclemmer disease (not a real disease), described as an immune disease that progressively 'breaks down the structure of defensive cell walls'. This resulted in a painful death for Halley at a young age. It's an inherited disease, but recessive, which means there is a 1 in 4 chance of Naomi and John having another affected child.
In real life, affected embryos could be screened out, using a combination of IVF and pre-implantation diagnosis. But in the novel, the Klaessons have raised 400,000 dollars for the services of Dr Leo Dettore, who first performs a whole genome sequence read on both parents to see what other bad genes may be lurking (genes for both bipolar mood disorder and manic depression for example – although I think these diseases are the same thing!) so they too can be 'removed'. Not only that but Dettore can design in a few gene enhancements to enable rapid growth (why?), high intelligence and a reduced need to sleep (so therefore higher productivity). The Klaessons spend several weeks on his boat, only briefly glimpsing one other couple, before leaving, with Naomi pregnant and believing that she is expecting a baby boy as planned.
However, back home in California, the scan she has a few weeks later reveals that she is having a girl. John tries to get hold of Dr Dettore for an explanation, with no success, and shortly afterwards, Dettore is killed when the helicopter he was travelling in was blown up by a religious group called the 'disciples of the third Millennium'.
Not only that, but instead of keeping a low profile, John blurts out the fact that he is having a designer baby to a journalist after one drink too many, she publishes the story, and the Klaessons then also come to the attention of the Disciples. To escape the unwanted attention, and potential danger to themselves, as someone is murdering both parents and twins 'designed' by Dettore, they move from California to the UK. Fortunately an old colleague, Carson Dicks has offered John a job there, to continue his research into the creation and study of virtual life forms, a scientific job blending biology and physics. A further scan in the UK then reveals that Naomi is actually expecting twins, a boy and a girl. Once born, more difficulties follow as they seem to be so intelligent they can speak in a made-up language based on a complex mathematical pattern by the age of 18 months, and have difficulty relating to both parents and other kids. In addition, the danger to their own lives and those of their children increase. How can John and Naomi deal with the increasingly difficult behaviour of their children, while protecting their safety? What exactly did Dettore do when 'designing' the children, and why twins?
This is a novel that mixes elements of THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS and THE DA VINCI CODE, with super-intelligent children that seem to have their own agenda, combined with a wrathful religious sect whose leader is ensconced in a monastery. Considering that John Klaesson is supposed to be a highly trained scientist, he seems remarkably stupid about designer babies, and genetics. There are some interesting discussions in the book as John and Naomi talk about how much they could or should 'design' a baby, and about the consequences of designing in what might be thought to be positive attributes, such as high intelligence that could turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing. And, there are a few unanticipated twists in the plots that push the story down unexpected routes. So, certainly an interesting book, and on balance worth a read, despite a few holes in the science! Just remember, this is science fiction after all...
Michelle Peckham, England