If you could design your child right down to the smallest detail, what characteristics would you pick? This is the choice that Dr and Mrs Klaesson face when they visit Dr Dettore, a renegade scientist who offers couples designer babies.
Peter James’ new novel, ‘Perfect People’, follows the Klaessons as they turn to Dr Dettore with the hope of having a child who does not inherit a rare recessive mutation they both carry. The mutation causes a fatal syndrome, one that killed their naturally conceived first-born. So far so good – this should be the realistic tale of a couple not wanting to pass on a deadly disease to their child. Although given there are already tests that can be done to screen for such diseases, it is not clear why the Klaessons spent their life savings and more going to Dr Dettore.
This aside, the reader is then taken on a journey through the ethical dilemmas the Klaessons face, when presented with over 3,000 choices concerning their child. These range from the probable – choosing gender – to the currently impossible, including greater intelligence, altered sleep patterns, tailored empathy and enhanced sporting ability.
There are deliberate echoes of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ as Dr Dettore prophesies a genetic underclass made up of those who were not designed.
In the end, the Klaessons choose just a handful of the modifications on the list, insisting that they merely want their child to be healthy, not a super-human freak. Of course if everything went smoothly, that would be the end of the story. Instead, what follows is a true page-turner, full of drama and suspense and a couple of unforeseen plot twists.
James sets the lead male character, Dr Klaesson, as an academic scientist leading a research group who model human evolution. Much of the ‘science’ (factual or fictional) is then explained to the reader through conversations between Dr Klaesson and his wife. This was an interesting strategy and as a result the science didn’t break the flow of the story, or feel out of place. Dr Klaesson’s research career is one of the pivotal plot breakers of the book; many of the major storylines are a direct result of his passion for science and search for funding. This is counterbalanced by Dr Dettore, who is the stereotypical mad boffin scientist out to rule the world.
The description of the science behind the designer babies is reasonably wooly, in her diary Naomi Klaeesson writes: ‘disease genes will be removed or disabled by altering their cytokines and others will be programmed to self-destruct’. This vagueness is to be expected, as much of it is hypothetical. However the process of testing and selecting embryos is accurately described. ‘Perfect People’ is well researched in both the technical details and life of an academic scientist. It has all the traits of an action packed thriller with an extra dimension – elegantly interspersing controversial, although largely fictional, science and spotlighting the reality of life as a scientist.