Imagine a world where you can choose your child’s attributes before he or she is born. In the fluid, fast-paced and tense Perfect People by Peter James, you no longer have to imagine…

I have commented on previous reviews that there are books I enjoy as stand-alone entities and there are books I enjoy because they make me ponder the bigger questions in life. Happily, Peter James combines the two effortlessly in this thought-provoking and challenging novel that at times, made me proud and at times, ashamed to be human.

John and Naomi only wanted to have a baby free of the genetic abnormality that caused the suffering and early death of their beloved son, Halley. When they are also offered the chance to dictate other features such as appearance, physicality and intelligence to give their their longed-for son the best possible future, they hesitantly accept.

But they end up with more than they bargained for when Naomi gives birth to their son Luke… and his twin sister Phoebe. With exceptional intelligence and capacity for knowledge, but limited emotional and social skills, caring for the twins threatens to push the couple to their limits.

Furious and desperate for answers, they are devestated when Dr Dettore, the maverick genius who pioneered this field of science, is violently murdered.

Struggling to deal with their children, Naomi and John also have to keep a look out for the religious extremists who claim Dr Dettore’s murder and are intent on destroying all evidence of his “devil’s work” – including the families he created…

Key Questions

If you could eliminate disease, would you?

Similar to the question “if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?”, Peter James raises some relevant questions about genetic engineering that are as old as the field-formerly-known-as-eugenics itself; namely, is it ever acceptable, and if so, what are the limits of acceptability? Beyond that, which isn’t really explored in the book, the question is: how on earth would one legislate for this? At some point, someone will have to decide…

Naomi and John, who enter into the process in order to eliminate their recessive disease-carrying genes from their offspring, initially baulk at choosing intelligence, eye colour etc (although have no reservations about gender selection). What would your limits be?

Respect for your elders

Luke and Phoebe – with their vastly superior intellect – run rings around their parents and exhibit disdain for them throughout. In a sense, I felt this was an analogy for the parent-child relationship in the twenty-first century. With the explosion of technology, the internet, social media etc, the tools and skills young people need today are very different from those of their parents and even further removed from their grandparents. As a result, many people bemoan the lack of respect for older generations shown by the young. Is this just nostalgia, imagining that they used to show respect for their elders, or is it real? And, like Luke and Phoebe, where does it end?

The nature of love

In ancient Greece, there were four different words for love, each describing a different facet. In their impassive, sometimes condescending way, Phoebe and Luke do seem to love their parents. Naomi, in a more demonstrative, occasionally desperate way, loves her children, while John openly admits he would choose Naomi over the children if necessary. Despite the denouement of the story (which I won’t spoil here!) the family come together in the end but I must admit it feels rather passionless to the end and I couldn’t work out to what extent this was protagonist utilitarianism (storge to use the ancient Greek equivalent) or real unconditional (agape) love by all parties… maybe I’m just a cynic!

Does science have all the answers?

Another modern position is to assume that science has all the answers, whether we know and understand them yet or not. But as Peter James expertly illustrates in this novel, science can provide the what and the how but cannot (will never?) offer the why (Mallory’s retort to the question of why he wanted to climb Everest – “because it’s there” – is grossly inadequate and should be to all rational people.)

Ultimately, Perfect People showed me that man has boundless capacity for destruction, manipulation and self-interest. But more than that, as shown in the final pages, we have even greater capacity for love.