Books: Frameshift

A reader review of one of Robert Sawyer’s other novels commented that Frameshift is probably his best book so far. Having read it now, I am inclined to agree. The main characters are well-developed, believable, and make you care about them. The science fiction scenarios are also believable – so much so that I’m not sure exactly where the science ends and the science fiction starts.

The scientific focus in Frameshift is on genetics. Pierre Tardivel is a geneticist, doing research to discover the function of “junk DNA.” His concern with genetics is more than professional, however, as he learns as a young man that his biological father has Huntington’s disease, and that there is a 50% chance he also has the defective gene that will end his life early – and cause serious problems even sooner.

(One kind of mutation that Tardivel studies is a frameshift, hence the title. A frameshift is “a mutation that occurs when one or two nucleotides are added or deleted, with the result that every codon beyond the point of insertion or deletion is read incorrectly during translation.” Pierre’s wife apparently has a frameshift mutation which results in her being able to read minds (if the other person is in close proximity to her). Her telepathic power plays a significant role in the plot, but it is not central.)

In many ways, the book is as much about ethics as it is about genetics. Is it a good thing to get genetic testing that tells what conditions you are likely to develop – or pass on to your children?  Is it right for an insurance company to be able to deny coverage based on the results of genetic testing? How should society treat people who are “defective” in one way or another? What are the appropriate limits of experimentation regarding human genetics?

At the time Sawyer wrote the book, the issue of insurance companies denying coverage based on genetic testing was – I am guessing – a contentious issue. (I don’t remember now whether I was aware of debates over the issue at the time.) But since then, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has gone into effect, providing (as best as I understand it) the protection that Tardivel argues for in Sawyer’s novel.

Sawyer also devotes a significant chunk of the novel to efforts to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals – men who callously and cruelly destroyed the lives of those they considered inferior – often based on attributes that are genetically determined, whether or not the Nazis knew or cared about the role of genetics. How well that major subplot fits into the novel as a whole I’m not sure, but as usual I learned something from reading about it.

Ultimately, though, the book is even more about people than it is about science or ethics, which is why I liked it so much. In some of Sawyer’s books, I found the science fascinating but not the people, as though the characters were just there to enable Sawyer to convey his ideas. In Frameshift, I really cared what happened to the people (well, at least the good guys), and for me that’s what makes a really good book.

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