Review: Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a writer I found recently and generally I have been impressed, but even the best writers are still hit and miss and for me Frameshift was a miss. That isn’t to say that this is a bad book or poorly written, I just didn’t care all that much about many of the things that happened and in the end much of the story felt as if it was stretching to make a point more than it was truly trying to tell a good story.

Frameshift is generally about genetics, though finding a core idea is a bit tricky. There are two main characters, a French Canadian geneticist who is working on the human genome program and a woman who can read minds. The mindreading ability is one of the only real science fiction elements to the story, but it didn’t really feel like it was all that important in most of the story. It actually detracted from the character to me, while Pierre becomes more interesting as he faces Huntington’s disease.

The major problem of this story is that it felt as if it were pushing a point more than telling a story. I can understand the point it is trying to make, that we have to be careful judging people based on their DNA, but it wasn’t told all that well. In fact due to idea that the character are attempting to hunt down NAZI war criminals in much of the book it feels a bit as if there is an assumption that people who disagree with the main premise are the same as NAZIs. I suspect this wasn’t intentional, and the NAZI hunting part of the story was one of the better parts, but it is still a bit unfortunate.

Many of the points in the book simply felt far too unlikely to truly work. For example (SPOILERS) the main characters want to have a child but can’t do so in the normal fashion so they are artificially inseminated. But the man who helps tricks them by injecting a cloned Neanderthal egg. This turns out to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but is a setup for the ‘family portrait’ of man at the end of the book in which you see the predecessor and future of man together. It’s a cute idea, but not one worthy of this much of the book. And, sadly, this is not the only place where the plot stretches in this way.  The main character also just happens to run into the real NAZI war criminal after accusing the wrong man.

In the end there are simply better books that tackle the idea of genetics and given the opportunity I would recommend the movie Gattaca long before this book because not only is in more interesting but makes the basic point far better. There is more to humanity than what is in our genes and our goal should be to rise above them not to submit to them. Still, if you want to read a book that considers the dangers and possibilities of understanding the human genome you could do far worse.