By Declan Burke
Saturday, December 10, 2011

CRIME author Peter James says the concept of what makes us human will change dramatically in the next 100 years. “Bionics, memory, artificial intelligence, the length of the human life span … it’s all to play for,” he says.

James is the bestselling and prize-winning author of the Roy Grace novels, police procedurals set in Brighton on the south coast of England. His latest novel is a departure. Perfect People concerns itself with Naomi and John Klaesson, a couple who have lost their young son to disease. Grieving, but determined their next child will enjoy all the benefits of science, the Klaessons sign up to a genetic engineering clinic run by Dr Dettore, a man described by Time magazine as “the Dr Frankenstein of the 21st century”.

James, smartly dressed in a black polo neck and a black leather jacket with a pair of tiny gold handcuffs pinned to the lapel, is avuncular and engaging when I meet him in the Gresham Hotel. He says Perfect People is as much a novel of ideas as it is a conventional genre tale, blending sci-fi and horror elements into crime fiction.

“The genesis of this story actually came to me about 12 years ago,” he says, “because I’d written one or two of my early novels, pre-Roy Grace, with science and medical themes. I wrote one about a scientist who wants to live forever by downloading his brain into a computer and having his body frozen, which wasn’t that far-fetched, I think.

“Anyway, I met a brain geneticist in Caltech, by chance, around then. At the time, they’d just identified the cluster of genes responsible for empathy, and he said, ‘There’ll be a point in the not-too-distant future, within our lifetimes, when parents will be able to choose the empathy levels of their kids.’ So you could pick a sweet, gentle boy, but he could be trodden on, or pick someone to be tough, but he could grow up to be a bully, or maybe even a sociopath,” James says.

The Klaessons discover Naomi is pregnant with twins rather than the single boy they’d specified, and the twins are born unnaturally advanced, physically and mentally. James, however, is not in the business of writing polemics.

“It’s not so much a warning book, no,” he says. “I think what I wanted to say in this book is that this is the future that we are staring at right now, like it or not. I mean, you and I could set up a genetics laboratory here,” he gestures around the Gresham’s lobby.

“You don’t need an awful lot of space, all you need is a telomerase machine, some pipettes, a computer, some Petri dishes, and not that much else. So, really, it’s not going to be controllable. Right now, you can go to a laboratory in Los Angeles and chose your baby’s hair colour, skin tone, eye colour. And there are disease genes you can have eradicated, cystic fibrosis is pretty close to being knocked out of the genome as we speak. When I started writing this book, it was sci-fi, no doubt about it. Right now, it’s all possible.

“We’ve got to the point now where science is out of control,” he says. “We’ve lost the plot of trying to keep our understanding of really where we are with it. There’s a fascinating statistic I once heard, which is that Aristotle was the last human being whose generation would have been capable of reading everything that had been written in their lifetimes. Copernicus, in 1490, his generation would have been the last capable of reading everything produced in their own language during their lifetimes. These days, it’s impossible for one person to know everything that’s going on.”

While the book is underpinned by speculative science, James has a powerful emotional connection to the subject matter.

“My ex-wife and I went through 11 years of IVF treatment,” he says. “We were one of Lord Winston’s first failures, we were really at the pioneering edge of it. She did in fact get pregnant,” he says, “but it was an ectopic.”

Fascinated by the subject’s possibilities, and a “sponge for information” (“I think probably because I was really bad at school,” he says. “I just smoked and chased girls and failed all my A-levels.”) James invested heavily in research when setting up the novel’s conflict between radical science and conservative religion.

“I wanted to know what turns someone into a religious fanatic, so I thought the best place to go would be a really ascetic monastic commune. I went and stayed in a monastery in Greece, near Mount Athos. It took two years to get in, because they only allow 12 non-Orthodox people there at any one time. No woman has been allowed there since 960 AD. They don’t even allow female dogs. The highest female life-form allowed is a chicken. You have to go and present yourself to a kind of monk bureau in Thessalonica, where three monks in black hats have a good look at you, and if they’re not sure they’ll have you drop your trousers,” he says.

Recently nominated for the UK’s Bestseller Dagger award, James made the news for announcing that if he won, he’d buy fish and chips on Brighton Pier for everyone who voted for him. So how people many turned up?

“Seventy-five,” he says, “which was fun. I was kind of relieved it wasn’t a thousand. But it was amazing to win. I honestly thought Lee Child would win it. Of all the awards I’ve ever won, that meant most to me because it wasn’t voted for by a kind of coterie of anonymous judges. So yeah, it was absolutely terrific.”

Despite having his position as Britain’s most popular crime writer copper-fastened, James plans more novels that go beyond the conventions of the thriller.

“I love writing the Roy Grace novels, and I’m lucky because in the Roy Grace books I’m able to deal with issues, such as human trafficking, say, and other issues that fascinate me. But there are other themes I want to explore.

“I’ve just finished my next Roy Grace novel, but the next big book after that will be a thriller about the proof of God’s existence, and what could happen if someone could actually prove God exists.

“I had a guy,” he says, “this was about 1996, who rang me one day. I wasn’t ex-directory in those days. He said, ‘It’s okay, I’m not mad, but I was a bomber navigator in the second world war, and I have absolute proof of God’s existence.’ It was a long story, and he turned out to be a little crazy, but he was credible, and that set me off on a path.

“I asked a friend of mine,” he says, “he’s now the Bishop of Monmouth, what would happen if someone did have actual proof of God’s existence. And he said that person would be killed by one of the churches. Because whose God would it be?”

* Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel, Absolute Zero Cool, is published by Liberties Press.