"This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't."

“This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.”

“Vasco Borden, forty-nine, tugged at the lapels of his suit and straightened his tie as he walked down the plush carpeted hallway.”

Some books sit on one’s shelf for mere moments before they are read. Some sit around for a few months before getting picked up. And then there are those that you’ve had so long they went with you to university in 2006 with intentions of being read and returned three years later still not having been opened. Next is one of those.

I’ve found that many of the books I’ve got left on my shelves to read (a number that never seems to diminish with any speed given my almost permanent presence in bookshops) are bigger hardbacks – books that I want to read, but are too big for me to relish the idea of lugging them. Still, the bullet must be bitten so I began with this one – the last novel Crichton wrote before he died.

Typically loaded with scientific jargon and the evidence of research that Crichton was famous for, the book explores almost every possible aspect of genetics. There are so many stories running through this that it is tricky at times to keep up with who’s who and what’s actually going on. Some of the stories link together, but others have characters pop up for one chapter but then are never mentioned again. There’s no rhyme or reason as to the appearance of some of the plotlines either. For example, the Vasco Borden mentioned in the very first line disappears after the prologue and doesn’t appear again for over two hundred pages.

However, there are two primary stories going on. The first is the story of Henry Kendall, a researcher who illegally introduced human genes – his own – into a chimpanzee as an experiment. That was four years ago, and now it turns out that he is the father of a transgenic chimp – a boy half-ape, half-human called Dave. Unable to let his son be put down, he kidnaps him and takes him home to live with his wife and children who, despite the strangeness of the situation, quickly accept Dave.

Meanwhile, a court rules than a company own Frank Burnet’s cells. When the cells they have in storage are contaminated, and Frank goes on the run, the company deems it their right to be able to take the cells however the want. His daughter Alex, for example, has some of the same cells as her father, and if she’s walking around with them, surely that’s theft? Alex and her son Jamie find themselves the target of some bounty hunters who are determined to get hold of those cells.

Other stories weave between these two, including an incredibly intelligent transgenic parrot who can do mental arithmetic and has a knack of repeating the wrong thing at the wrong time, a paedophile who is trying to claim that his genes mean he is not responsible for his behaviour, a researcher who accidentally gives his brother a maturity drug, a doctor who is selling on bones and genetic material without authorisation to whoever seems to ask for it, and an orangutan that has been discovered in Java and appears to swear at anyone who approaches it in fluent Dutch.

Heavy in science, and prone to confusing me with the large accumulation of characters (and the attempt to remember which ones are important and which ones don’t matter in the long run), the book certainly has its flaws, but it is by no means a bad book. Crichton’s talent for getting real research into his books add to the reality. The shocking thing is that, while parts of this are definitely fictional and there aren’t yet any chimpanzee-human crossbreeds (that we know of), much of it is real and happening right now. There are discussions about the right of gene ownership, on whether we should be playing with genetics to help humanity and other species or if it’s pretending to be God, and the idea of breeding animals so that they have corporate logos on their skin. (“This rhino, brought to you by Land Rover.”)

A book that really makes you think and what’s going on in our bodies, and would be funny if it wasn’t so damn terrifying.