Posted on behalf of Sara Reardon
It’s 2045, and the genetic editing system CRISPR has become a mainstay of society, producing everything from housecat-sized tigers to geopolitical intrigues. The United Nations has approved a sensible list of gene edits that can be legally used to eliminate specific genetic diseases from human embryos. This international concord works as well as one could expect from a sluggish bureaucracy trying to rein in a lucrative new enterprise. Before the treaty’s ink is dry, underground labs in Asia are offering “vanity edits” to parents willing to pay for smarter, healthier children. A single CRISPR snip to a gene that reduces the risk of heart disease might be routine and relatively cheap; altering the many genes that contribute to a complex feature like intelligence will cost much more. And that’s before you factor in the legal consequences if you get caught designing your perfect baby. As one illicit geneticist says, “all genetics is warfare”.
So begins Change Agent: a sci-fi thriller set in Southeast Asia with colourful and scientifically believable elements embellishing a fairly tired plot. Former software developer Daniel Suarez drew on still-cutting-edge research for his novel, one of the first to namecheck CRISPR as the catalyst for dystopia.
In Suarez’s imagined future, crime involving genetically modified humans has become so pervasive that international police organisation INTERPOL has devoted massive resources to dealing with it. But when detective Kenneth Durand finds himself hot on the heels of an organized crime ring in Singapore, he gets jabbed with a “change agent”. He awakens weeks later, shocked to find his body inexplicably transformed into that of the cartel’s ringleader, Marcus Demang Wyckes.
No one believes Durand’s explanation, least of all fellow INTERPOL agents who see him as the man whose face is on every wanted poster in Asia. After all, even the best scientists in 2045 believe it is impossible to genetically edit a living person. So Durand-as-Wyckes sets off alone to track down the real Wyckes and find a way to reverse-engineer his own body. That journey takes him through a landscape of sci-fi cliché – an underground nightclub of bio-enhancement enthusiasts, a shadowy Chinese trafficking ring with an invisible leader, intrusive augmented-reality ads.
Biotechnological flights of fancy
Yet Suarez has sprinkled the narrative with clever ideas inspired by current technologies. Singapore’s streets crawl with drug addicts, who tattoo molecular compounds onto their bodies so that dealers with 3-D printers can synthesize the drugs to deliver personalized highs. The Burmese government, which is waging genocide on its hill tribes, destroys their crops with gene drives — a controversial technology that can destroy populations by introducing genes that kill offspring. Nearly every other page is a glimpse into some biotechnological flight of fancy.
Suarez’s descriptions of the capacities and limitations of CRISPR, among other real-life technologies, are clear and mostly accurate, with minimal artistic licence. It’s the novel’s plot that — although fast-moving — fails to impress. As Durand flees his pursuers, he fights an unconvincing war with himself, as Wyckes’ grafted-on persona tries to drive him to violence. The enemies and allies that he picks up along the way are hackneyed and forgettable. This is especially true of the moustache-twirling Wyckes, whose denouement would be described as disappointing if we had cared about him in the first place. I won’t spoil everything, but suffice to say that Suarez wastes his most original idea in Wyckes’s bizarre engineered hitman, whose clever biochemical makeup repulses normal humans.
When we finally meet the CRISPRers, it’s in coastal Thailand (where else?). Potential parents sit through a parade of perfect children as if it’s a presentation for timeshare vacation condos. Predictably, the youngsters are a cover for the criminals’ more profitable product: children engineered with defective brains and enhanced muscles that make them disciplined workers and soldiers. Certainly people in 2045 must have read Brave New World. And meanwhile, readers will experience less shock than scepticism over how INTERPOL ever let crime get this bad right under their noses.
Perhaps that dulled reaction is what makes Change Agent most memorable. We have become so used to fictional explorations and academic treatises on engineering humans — from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to recent editorials in Nature — that the deranged possibilities presented by the technologies fail to thrill us any more. In an era stranger than fiction, sci-fi writers are increasingly hard-pressed to generate the requisite surprise, even as the scientific advances motor on.
Sara Reardon is a reporter for Nature working on biomedical research and policy, based in Washington DC. She tweets at @Sara_Reardon.
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