I adore spec fiction set just into the future, and I’ll admit part of that thrill is the scary thought that some of it may come true. It adds a layer of excitement that really gets my brain thinking overtime. I’m so glad to have discovered Eve Smith, and after really enjoying her new novel, will be going back to read her first, The Waiting Rooms about a woman searching for her birth mother after an antibiotic crisis has raged across the world.
In Off Target, Smith combines all the angst of a psychological drama about a woman desperate to have a child with the high concept baby engineering of the medical thriller to create a chilling vision of the problems it may cause. This is a subject that I’ve previously read about, having devoured Jamie Metzl’s excellent Hacking Darwin – a NF book she quotes from in Off Target‘s epigraph.
Susan Rawlins in a teacher, and is desperate for a baby. She’s married to Steve – it’s his second marriage – and being nearly bankrupted by IVF treatments helped his first marriage to founder. He still wants a family too, however this time he will only consider conceiving naturally, but it’s not happening. Susan has had genetic screening – there is no reason for her not to conceive. Steve has refused. Susan is beginning to get desperate.
Her best friend Carmel is a source of constant support. She and Barry were screened and discovered Barry carried a mutation for Huntington’s, and she tells Susan that they had ‘qualified’ for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to check their IVF embryos were free of that gene. Carmel is trying to persuade her to get Steve tested:
‘Come to think if it, I don’t know any couples who are even trying to conceive naturally.’ She nods at me. ‘I’m telling you, Susan, conception through intercourse is becoming positively Neanderthal. What’s the saying? “Sex is for recreation and IVF is for procreation.” ‘
Steve doesn’t like the amount of time Susan spends with Carmel either, but Carmel is to be instrumental in what happens next. When Susan in her despair has a one night stand with another teacher and gets pregnant just like that – she is determined to keep the baby. But Marty is so physically different to Steve, there’s no way she can pass the baby off as Steve’s child. Carmel introduces her to Dr Stakhovsky who runs a Ukrainian fertility clinic and is looking for research subjects. He claims he can replace the father’s DNA – swap Marty’s for Steve’s, but she needs to decide quickly. It won’t cost anything and they’ll follow-up with medicals over the coming years.
Ultimately Susan makes a decision: she’d rather deceive Steve and keep him, and keep him in the dark rather than tell the truth which would break their relationship, so she and Carmel cobble together an excuse for a European city break. Despite Stakhovsky’s assurances that it is permitted under Ukrainian protocols, we all know this is genetic engineering of the most dangerous and unethical kind.
Susan and Steve have their daughter, whom she names Zurel – after one of the ‘Rembrandt tulips’ that sparked tulip mania in the 1630s. Steve knows nothing about Zurel’s origins, Susan having supplied his DNA obtained by stealth means.
All goes well until Zurel is in her mid-teens. She is growing to hate her regular check-ups, which her mother had told her she’d signed up for in a research project when she was born. When she reads about a cohort of Chinese genetically modified children that are self-harming and committing suicide, she begins to wonder if she is genetically modified and that’s why she has the check-ups. Her response is to become selectively mute. Her school’s deputy head, Mr Thomson begins to work with her to work out her problems and this is where, of course, it all begins to unravel – and Susan is not the only one with secrets.
Outwardly, Susan and Steve’s world is little different from our own, but the possibilities of interfering with someone’s genes beyond screening for certain conditions is near. Although Metzl was hopeful that we would use genetic engineering for good, we are all afraid it won’t be so, that unscrupulous scientists will create unnatural ‘chimeras’ with more than one type of DNA in their bodies (although in some forms they already exist naturally – read this Scientific American article).
Of course, genetic modification is not straight-forward, despite the development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR. Few conditions, like Huntington’s are controlled by a single gene. Change one gene and you may affect many other human characteristics. It’s very scary.
Smith’s thriller is all so plausible, and her depth of research shows. As a trained scientist and frequent reader of popular science books plus all that spec and science fiction, I’d have happily hoovered up even more science, but for other readers I think she gets the balance just right.
At the book’s core is a scared young girl who’s afraid she’s a monster – something that should never happen. Eve Smith’s prescient thriller is thought-provoking reading, a real page-turner too that I really enjoyed.
Source: Review copy – thank you to Orenda Books and RandomTours
Orenda paperback, Feb 2022, 357 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.