Skip to main content

Mutants – Armand Leroi *****

A freak show. It’s not a nice term – not a nice concept, but something that has the terrible ability to fascinate at the same time as it horrifies.
This is a subject where academic detachment is inconceivable. The whole concept of being entertained by the deformed is so disgusting (and so appealing to many) that it would seem a good popular science book on the subject of human mutation is practically impossible. Yet Armand Leroi has achieved it.
It’s hard to believe that the accompanying TV series can manage this so well. However good Leroi’s intentions, TV can’t help but turn this topic into prurient viewing. And it doesn’t help that in the UK that the next programme in the broadcaster’s schedule is Big Brother – a show that is totally dependent on the voyeuristic enjoyment of the human condition and suffering of others. (A recent example of this was when the occupants of the Big Brother house had to sit on a roundabout that was spun until they vomited.) Arguably the TV version of Mutants should never have been made. But – an immense but – the book manages to walk the tightrope superbly.
Perhaps it would have been even better to emphasize this distinction without the illustrations, but that apart, the distancing brought by the printed word makes it possible to deal with this delicate topic with real humanity. What Leroi’s book is about is not the horrified delight of the peep show, nor the opportunistic exhibition of the likes of Joseph Merrick, but the biological causes of human mutation and the lessons we can learn about the way we are all put together. And it is remarkably brilliant at doing this.
Reading Leroi’s description of the minute complexities of our gradual construction in the womb, what is remarkable is not that there are mutants, but there are so few. Or at least seemingly so – for as Leroi points out we are all mutants, it’s just that some are more mutated than others.
If your idea of what mutants are is formed from watching the movie X-Men, it’s time for a radical re-think. We all know, as the portentous X-Men voiceover tells us, that mutation is an essential. Without it there would have been no evolution of the human race. But Leroi shows us both mutation’s dark side – the sad but essential cost of being able to develop in this way – and the lessons that modern biologists can learn, both from natural mutation and from the experimental modification (in animals, not humans) of genetic material. These experiments themselves can seem distastefully gruesome – but the balance of knowledge is one we have to weigh carefully.
If you had any doubt about getting this book because of the “freak factor” – and I have to confess I did – put that concern aside. Leroi is not a modern-day sideshow huckster, encouraging you in to see the two-headed calf and the bearded lady. Instead he brilliantly (and most of all, humanely and very readably) lays bare the realities of our human development. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…