If you could pre-programme the genes of your child, what would you wish for? A healthy child, free from risk of disease, sure. But what about other genetic tweaks that could provide your offspring with a kick-start in life?
That’s what rogue geneticist Leo Dettore offers a grief-stricken couple in Peter James’s new novel, Perfect People. John and Naomi Klaesson turn to his offshore clinic after losing their firstborn son to a particularly nasty inherited disease. Their initial desire is for their next child born to escape the fate of their first, but that’s before Dettore offers a host of other advantages: a child who needs less sleep, who can survive on the most meagre of diets. Offspring with exceptional strength and intellect, whose level of empathy doesn’t hold them back in life. In the future, he argues, an individual will need these skills just to keep up with an advancing society.
The ethical implications that surround the idea of creating designer babies are controversial, drawing you deeply in to the drama of the situation. When the Klaessons tick boxes on a checklist to select their child’s characteristics, I found myself questioning my own ethics and wondering whether my own decisions would be any different.
If the technology was there now, would some people be secretly taking advantage of it? And if so, would it be ethically justifiable?
Somewhat predictably, the couple soon find themselves in hiding from a group of religious fanatics, and shifting the story to a war between forward-thinking, science-minded people and those horrified by the thought of new technology, let alone pre-determining a baby’s genetic make-up. At first, I felt a little disappointed – religious fanatics make for easy villains – but I was so gripped by the story that my misgivings were forgotten.
The story takes another turn when the children are born. From the moment they enter the world their behaviour seems abnormal to their parents, and at times the story becomes sinister and frightening. The couple begin to suspect that the geneticist Dettore may have had his own agenda, and they have yet to discover exactly what that might be.
Overall, the book is a fast-paced and gripping, if predictable at times. Its message is a conflicted one: while the designer babies are far from what the couple expected and wanted, the parents themselves end up accepting Dettore’s point – that super-smart, unemotional people are the only ones who stand a chance at advancing human civilisation beyond its current state, riddled with war and inequality. It’s left to the reader to decide whether or not the idea could ever be justified, even if only in fiction.