Freaking Out Over Gene Tinkering
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
By Michael Crichton
HarperCollins. 431 pp. $27.95
As I read Michael Crichton's new techno-thriller, I kept thinking about those carnival midways I explored as a lad in Texas. You know, the kind where pitchmen stand outside tents and yell, "Step right up, folks, only 25 cents, come see the Fat Lady, come see Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy!" Crichton wants to warn us about the dangers of genetic engineering, but he's also a big-league novelist determined to sell the 2 million copies his publisher reportedly has ordered. He has therefore put forth this mishmash of a book that is part lecture, part satire and mostly freak show. I wasn't kidding about Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy -- he would fit right into "Next," alongside my two favorite characters, Davy the Monkey Boy and Gerard the Put-Upon Parrot, both of whom have the misfortune to be partly human.
Davy's saga began when Henry Kendall, a mild-mannered scientist doing research on autism, injected some of his own cells into a chimpanzee embryo. All he wanted was a "transgenic" fetus, but things went terribly wrong. Four years later he is summoned to a government primate center, where he meets his son, Davy: "The chimp's face was flatter than usual, and the skin was pale, but it was clearly a chimp." Davy can talk, and is an endearing little fellow, but his existence is against all the rules, so the officials plan to terminate him. Instead, Henry steals Davy and takes him home to California. With a haircut, a baseball cap and baggy clothes, Davy passes for a more or less normal kid, although he can climb trees better than most and when aroused will bite your ear off.
As Davy's story unfolds, we meet Gerard, a transgenic African gray parrot who as a chick was injected with a variety of human genes. Gail, the scientist who did this, has taken Gerard home to see how he develops. When Gerard is 2, she learns that, in addition to talking fluently, the parrot has been helping her son with his math homework. Various complications follow -- Gerard has a way of annoying people with comments like "I am surrounded by fools" -- and he is kidnapped and also makes his way to California, where his saga eventually merges with Davy's.
I would have loved this novel if it had focused on the adventures of plucky Davy and sardonic Gerard, but, alas, Crichton has a great many more tales to tell. There are reports of a talking orangutan in Sumatra who can curse in several languages and -- shades of King Kong -- who soon has several fortune hunters seeking to bring him back alive. There's the story of a man who, while being treated for cancer, agreed to let his doctor have certain of his cells, for research, he thought. Eventually, because the cells have rare, cancer-fighting properties, the doctor sells them to a university for billions of dollars, and the courts rule that the patient has no rights to them at all. There's the drug addict who accidentally inhales a retrovirus containing a gene that is intended to speed maturity in rats. This "maturity gene" helps the fellow kick his habit but, soon enough, there are unexpected consequences.
Crichton's previous novel "State of Fear" ridiculed warnings about global warming and led many environmentalists to attack him. In this book he retaliates with a murky satire about a "Neanderthal gene" and evidence that "the Neanderthals were the first environmentalists." As the freak show continues, an artist creates "a transgenic rabbit called Alba that glowed green," cockroaches are sold as pets (by nutty environmentalists who say that "the real danger of global warming is that we may render so many insects extinct," dogs are created that never grow beyond puppies (they're called Perma-Puppies), and a scientist ponders a new gene that will make his girlfriend orgasmic. (Whenever the novel threatens to bog down in genetics, Crichton has an endearing habit of injecting a sex scene.)
Now and then he addresses a serious issue seriously. In one scene, scientists debate the case of a 12-year-old girl, suffering from a genetic deficiency, who died after a gene transplant. A doctor told the girl and her family that the procedure had only a 3 percent chance of success. Some scientists think he should be disciplined for performing such a risky procedure. Another points to Christiaan Barnard's pioneering heart transplants: "His first seventeen patients died almost immediately. . . . But now, more than two thousand heart transplants are performed every year in this country." Touching briefly on stem cell research, Crichton has a biologist declare, "What you have been told is nothing more than a myth, intended to ensure funding for researchers, at the expense of false hopes for the seriously ill." Take that, Michael J. Fox!
This strange novel opens with a prologue in which two private detectives chase a man who has some stolen embryos. In the end, a Russian prostitute has come and gone, someone is dead, the embryos are missing, and the detectives are as confused as the reader. "I'd like to know how all this goes together," one of them says. "Maybe it doesn't," the other replies.
I came to think of that exchange as Crichton's little joke, his warning of the rough sledding ahead. It's true that certain fragmented messages do emerge. Doctors cannot be trusted, lawyers will stop at nothing, judges are fools. But it's not until the novel ends that Crichton provides an author's note to spell out what he really thinks. Among his points are that genes should not be patented, that we need clear guidelines for the use of human tissues and that we should avoid bans on research. Next comes a seven-page bibliography of books and articles on genetics. All this is fine, and maybe the occasional reader will be inspired to do serious follow-up research, but my guess is that the vast majority will just come for the freak show. Let's face it, you go to the midway to see Jo-Jo, not to do your homework.