Closer to Science Fiction Than Science Fact
Perfect People by Peter James
Publication Date: 2011
Price on Amazon.com: $14.95
I have to admit, I’m not someone who has read a large number of Peter James’ books and so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when embarking on the 600 page saga that is Perfect People. As with all fiction books that dip into real-world science, I went in assuming that I’d need to engage in some impressive suspension of disbelief as the story unfolded; in that regard, I wasn’t wrong.
The book starts strong in many ways, introducing the concept of gene editing in human embryos and ‘designer babies’ in a way that’s both accessible to anyone and technically accurate from a genomics perspective. (In the interest of being open, I’ve already made my thoughts about the term designer babies known, but I did my best to put that frustration aside when reading this book). It also does a good job of getting you on the parents’ side quickly, outlining the history of losing their first child to a rare genetic disease that they’re both carriers for and how that drove them to the gene editing clinic run by Dr Dettore.
Unfortunately, the actual science falls off the rails pretty quickly after that. For one, the book never makes any mention of the possibility of using Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), which would allow the parents to select an embryo that didn’t carry both copies of the disease-linked gene during the IVF process, without the need for gene editing. Even putting that aside in the interests of the narrative, the opening scenes with Dr Dettore are littered with ideas that are far closer to science fiction than they are to accurate scientific fact. During the process of ‘designing’ their child, the parents are confronted with hundreds and hundreds of options, ranging from the expected (removing disease-linked genes), to the predictable (improving strength and speed), to the downright impossible (increasing or decreasing the future child’s compassion). By the end of the book, the idea of having ‘compassion genes’ is not the most far-fetched concept raised.
It’s also with Dr Dettore that James introduces one of the stranger aspects of the book. From the perspective of Naomi, the mother and the reader’s main point of view, we are immediately made to distrust Dettore and his work, and by extension the other medical staff in the clinic. The first doctor we meet after they leave the clinic is similarly vilified, being portrayed as disinterested and cold when confronted with Naomi and her husband John. Later in the story we encounter a psychiatrist who is initially described as ‘bitchy’ and ‘condescending’, despite the fact that both the characters and the reader know that the psychiatrist is reacting in the way anyone would in the same situation. While there are a handful of doctors towards the end of the story who are portrayed as kind and caring, Perfect People does an impressive job of painting doctors as the bad guys.
It’s not until you get beyond the opening scenes at the clinic that the purpose of the story becomes clearer to the reader: this is not a book about gene editing. That sounds strange for a book with gene editing as the central plot point, but it’s true. Instead, Perfect People acts as a conduit to explore the ethics of tampering with the genome and, more importantly, how the world at large might react to such a thing. True to its title, this book is about people.
The main antagonists of the book, the Disciples of the Third Millennium, take the form of a religious cult dedicated to eradicating anyone who has been involved with Dr Dettore’s clinic, including our protagonists. Pitting science against religion can be a bit of a cheap trick, but it’s handled well enough that it doesn’t act as an overbearing presence throughout the narrative and there’s more going on beyond them to keep it interesting.
When the word gets out that Naomi is pregnant with a designer baby, the world press completely obliterates their lifestyle. Along with John, she finds herself dodging reporters at every opportunity and ultimately they’re forced to leave the country to escape the journalists constantly dogging their steps. The book doesn’t paint the public perception of genomics in a flattering light, but it feels all the more genuine because of it, openly acknowledging our propensity to fear something we don’t entirely understand.
Even Naomi and John fall into that trap, continually worrying over what they’ve done and trying to decide whether or not going to Dettore was the right thing, all the way up until the last page. By the time a reader is finished, it’s hard to believe that they would be able to walk away with anything other than a negative opinion of gene editing in humans (along with a slightly skewed opinion of what modern day genomics is truly capable of).
Outside of the genomics minefield, Perfect People is undoubtedly a well-crafted, if a little predictable, story that befits such a prolific writer as Peter James. Even when considering a malicious organisation on an international scale, he takes the time to give the reader a face to act as the villain in the form of one of the Disciples of the Third Millennium and he takes care to never let the reader fall behind in their understanding of the events unfolding. For someone who isn’t looking for an accurate representation of gene editing, Perfect People offers an intriguing exploration of the lengths some parents will go to for their children and asks the question, ‘What do any of us really owe our parents?’
If you’ve got any books to recommend for this new series, let me know about it through any of the usual channels!