Second Genesis

by Jeffrey Anderson, M.D.


(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 2006
Category: science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY {from the back cover}:

In a private compound deep in the jungles of the Amazon rain forest, a team of scientists, expert in stem cell engineering, is playing God. Among them, biologist Jamie Kendrick is grappling with the implications of the lab’s creation—a genetically altered chimpanzee as intelligent, and sentient, as man. When a lead scientist is murdered and the chimps escape, Jamie stumbles upon shocking new discoveries—the unethical origin of the project, where the terrifying experiment is ultimately headed, and its potential to render humanity obsolete.

REVIEW:

Second Genesis channels the master science thriller writer Michael Crichton with pretty decent success. Author Jeffrey Anderson anchors his story in real science, drawing on his day job as a neuroscientist / physician to give the plot believable scientific heft. Like Crichton, he chooses subject matter that lies just outside the range of most people’s awareness—subject matter that is futuristic but not far off, and worthy of profound ethical debates that simply haven’t happened yet.

At its most philosophical level, this book is about what makes humans different from all other creatures, including our closest biological relative, the chimpanzee. If the difference is merely one of degree, not kind, then genetic tinkering may overcome the gap between our species.

While that may be an interesting topic for late-night discussion at the Sorbonne, thriller readers are looking for a good story to go with it. And Anderson delivers. The exotic setting in the Amazon nicely serves up danger and isolation. The plot invokes horribly unethical human experimentation, but it’s believable. There’s the mysterious chimpanzee itself, several female protagonists (one a scientist, another a journalist, a third a former Israeli commando) who play fairly equal roles, an evil scientist, a corporate spy, and more.

Anderson enjoys sprinkling the book with interesting information, some scientific, some just relevant to the story. Doing this is risky, as the author may lose the reader who is less interested than he is, but I think Anderson strikes an excellent balance and this is in fact a strength of the book. Neuroscience, rainforest botany, hedge funds, tropical diseases, in vitro fertilization, intelligence tests—they all get a nod in this book. All topics appear to be well-researched and accurate. Although horrible events are alluded to, this book spares the reader from excessively graphic descriptions.

I enjoyed this book enough to almost give it four stars, but it has weaknesses. The latter part of the story is a prolonged jungle chase scene which is fairly ridiculous. (Why would these smart people do such stupid things? Aren’t they lost yet? Can’t they figure out what the chimp is up to? And why the heck would the chimp act that way?) But I kept turning the pages. Also the characters are pretty shallow. I didn’t really care who got killed off, the love interest was trite, and I was left aching for a better-developed villain.

Three and a half stars (if I could give that rating) due to strength of scientific and philosophical themes. Definitely recommended for science thriller fans.

This is a good book for: Michael Crichton fans

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