Monday, 18 July 2016

The Hunt for FOXP5 - a genomic mystery novel - Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer ****

I've read a good few novels that attempt to provide edutainment - to work as a good story while simultaneously providing the reader with the kind of interesting information about science you might find in a popular science book. Most don't work at all. Either they fall over on the fiction writing, painfully lathering on the facts and writing amateurish prose, or they are so science-light that they are, in effect just straightforward hard science fiction, perhaps with a 'science behind the story' at the back. This title by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer, I would say, is the best I've ever read in terms of achieving a balance of the two.

In the Hunt for FOXP5 we meet genetics professor Michelle Murphy and her extremely intelligent daughter Avalon (yes, really), adopted from a Kazakhstan orphanage, the way you do. In a mix of archeology, genetics and nationalist political intrigue we get a feel for how the FOXP2 gene may have resulted in human language ability distinguishing early humans from the other humanoids - and how a later single mutation, producing the (fictional) FOXP5, could result in extraordinary human intelligence. This change is something that the scientific leader of Kazakhstan wants to make a national treasure, so we end up with plenty of fun involving capture, escape and rescue attempts to give the plot action.

The book isn't without flaws. The writing is workmanlike, but fails to take the advice 'show don't tell' rather too often. There's also a bit of a plot weakness when none of the highly intelligent main characters appear to notice that it's probably not a great idea to take an orphan, who was removed from a not-entirely-democratic country in a process involving lots of dubious bribery, back to her country of birth. There is also the usual issue that when reading such a book, that the reader is never quite sure which bits are real science, and which are fiction. Admittedly the short 'scientific appendices' section does try to fill some of this in, but it's an inevitable difficulty. I sometimes wonder if there should be a 'science accuracy level' thermometer in each page margin. It's also a bit disappointing when a science-based book makes as basic an error as referring to 'absolute temperature expressed as degrees Kelvin'. (No degrees in the Kelvin scale, just kelvins.)

Despite these concerns, I rattled through the book, enjoyed the adventure, which hovered between adult and young adult in apparent audience level, and felt I was really gaining something from the science content - so a good thumbs up to Messrs Kaufman and Deamer.

Review by Brian Clegg

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