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Book Prize Blog: Perfect People by Peter James

2 Nov, 2012

Cover image for ‘Perfect People’

In the latest in our series of Book Prize Blogs, Georgia Bladon reads ‘Perfect People’ – A thriller by one of Britain’s leading crime writers about the lengths parents will go to for a healthy child.

John and Naomi Klaesson have already lost their first and only child. Desperate to have another, they search for a way to have a baby free from the hereditary disease they carry. Genetisist Dr Dettore hands them their dream, alongside possibilities they could never have imagined.

Laid out before them is page upon page scrawled with the diseases that lurk in their genes. Diseases that could spring up in them or any child they bare. They begin to tick boxes:

  • Remove predisposition to breast cancer? Yes.
  • Eliminate the gene that caused the death of their son? Of course.
  • A more efficient metabolism? That sounds sensible…
  • Increase Athleticism?
  • Increase Height?

When does the medical become the cosmetic? When does it stop being treatment and turn into design? These are the questions the Klaessons must ask themselves. As the novel unravels they must come to terms with the decisions they have made and face the violent animosity of those against this ‘meddling with life’ and the shocking realities of being guinea pigs to a science that is not yet understood.

That’s about all that I can say about the plot without ruining the twists and turns that make the novel what it is. The phrase ‘page turner’ is used too often but in this case it really does ring true. While I must admit I was left with a sense that Perfect People is more the script of a Hollywood film than it is a literary piece, there is no doubt that it keeps your attention.

The science in the novel is very much fiction. In the early 1980’s gene therapy in animals and humans began and was found to be almost universally unsuccessful (although research continues). As the novel suggests even in the rare cases of success there were usually unforeseen, and often disturbing, consequences. One experiment successfully increased the muscle mass of mice but as a side effect made them hyper sensitive to pain. Biomedicine is not as simple as we thought.

But this is not to say that the ethical questions raised by the book are unimportant. Fiction is a cultural tool and, just as Renaissance art represented dissatisfaction with the church and punk an anarchic movement in society, fiction represents cultural thoughts and fears.

Among the questions that have preoccupied bioethicists and the general public since the dawning of genetics is the opinion of Dr Dettore himself, the opinion that coerces the Klaessons into making the decisions they do: ‘In twenty-eight years’ time the world will be different. There will be a genetic underclass that will create a divide bigger than you can imagine’.

A prominent opinion in the media frenzy around ‘designer babies’ and genetic enhancement in the sporting community is that it just isn’t fair. There is a very real danger that it could become a new way for the rich to give their children advantages beyond the grasp of the average person and a new tool for eugenics.

Is the blonde haired, blue eyed appearance of the children in Perfect People a coincidence? I sincerely doubt it.

Perfect People expresses a fear that science not properly understood or communicated can be a dangerous venture and can prey on or isolate the most vulnerable members of our society. Whether a new vaccine for our children, a new drug for ourselves, or a new form of power for our country, all are met with the same question: what are the consequences?

Perfect People asks the questions that cross every mind in the light of scientific advancement and taps in to an innate fear of society repeating the harms and inequalities that have riddled the history of the human race.

Below is a short film which has been produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

For further information and book club reading packs for all the shortlisted entries please visit the Book Prize website. Or head down to the Wellcome Collection this Sunday to hear some of the shortlisted authors talk about their work.

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