The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman & David Deamer
Published May 13th 2016 (Springer)
Back in September, I made a post about the Humble Book Bundle. As happy as I was with the deal, I haven’t gotten around to reading any of those books until now. I started with Hunt for Foxp5 because I really like genetics, and was rewarded with a lot of interesting ideas about evolution and genetics. This story is rigorous in educating its audience about current genetic engineering technologies and the ethical dilemmas we’ll soon face.
If only the plot was as fascinating and well thought out as the science.
Hunt for FOXP5 follows Michelle Murphy, an American geneticist who travels to a conference in Kazakhstan with her super intelligent daughter Avalon. I found the fact that she takes Avalon with her a bit odd, since Avalon was adopted from Kazakhstan in a very shady manner, and Michelle had been warned by the CIA that the host of the convention, Dr. Akenov, was a very influential man who may be working on a biological superweapon. And that Michelle works for a company that is working on similar techniques to this potential weapon and she is told the company’s computers have been hacked. Personally, if it was me, I’d be seeing a few red flags and leave my daughter with some relatives, but hey; I’m not a super smart geneticist/astrobiologist, what do I know?
But of course, Michelle takes Avalon to Kazakhstan, and immigration officials stop them at the airport when they try to go home, saying that Avalon’s adoption was illegal and she’ll have to stay in Kazakhstan.
Avalon falls into the hands of mad scientist Dr. Akenov, and here starts the fun part of the book. As Avalon and Michelle try to reunite and work out Dr. Akenov’s plan, the book becomes really hard to put down. It’s a blast following Avalon on this adventure, as she first tries to work out the plan, and then to escape her prison. It’s enough to excuse the fact that just under half the book was pretty much just set up.
But just as the chase is getting interesting, there is a shocking plot development that changes everything. It changes the scope of Dr. Akenov’s plan, including who his main target was all along. It also introduces a character who should be important and complicated and someone who we have an emotional attachment to. She should be all those things, but instead she just comes across as a plot device designed to force Avalon to act in a certain way. Once this plot twist happened, I felt the climax the story was building towards slow down. Everything felt a bit contrived to me after that.
There were a few other little things I didn’t like about this story. One thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the way the perspective rotated. It’s all 3rd person, but whose head or background we’re exploring often changed with no warning. No new chapter or line breaks, we’re just following one character as they interact with someone else, and then the next paragraph we’re following the other character. I know in some books the narrative voice is good enough to make this transition work, but here it just annoyed me. Another problem was that the story is set in 2020, but there are references that even in 2016 feel a bit dated. I suppose adults referring to Borat is acceptable, but a thirteen-year-old talking about Octomum? The 2020 setting just wasn’t sold to me.
All in all, Hunt for FOXP5 did a lot of things that I liked. It taught me a lot about genetics, I enjoyed the speculation on the origin of human intelligence, I did like most of the characters, and there were some fun scenes. But there were also a lot of things I didn’t like that much, and at times I felt like I was really pushing myself just to get through the book. Also, I had a few formatting problems while reading it on my kindle; not sure if that’s in the original ebook, or if it’s a quirk of how I obtained the files.
All in all, 6.5 out of 10.