Skip to main content

My Beautiful Genome – Lone Frank ****

After getting over the nagging conviction that this was a book about a Galapagos tortoise (the author’s name, Lone Frank, is more than somewhat reminiscent of Lonesome George), I found this a fascinating exploration of a subject that is not going to go away – the influence of our genes on the way we are both medically and socially, looking at it as much from a commercial viewpoint as a scientific one.
In some ways the early promise of genetics has not delivered. After the initial idea that hoped that once you knew someone’s genome you could map out all kinds of illnesses, susceptibilities and personality traits, it turned out that things weren’t anywhere near as simple as first thought. Not only is it rare that a single gene acting alone is responsible for a particular trait, the whole business of epigenetics – genes being switched on and off during a person’s lifetime – makes it immensely difficult to draw straight conclusions from genetic information alone.
Nonetheless, companies offering genetic profiles for everything from susceptibility to medical conditions to romantic compatibility are springing up all over, and often doing well. In a very personal odyssey, Lone Frank tries out various tests and talks to many experts about what is sure, what is probabilistic and what is a distant pipe dream. She encounters everything from a man who believes it is a simple logical choice to have a double mastectomy if you have a gene combination that makes breast cancer more likely to a scientist who points out that in some ways eugenics is live and well in modern medicine.
There is no doubt that this is a very personal and informal exploration of an important and sometimes quite complex subject. Frank brings out some really thought-provoking issues, concerns and positive possibilities for the future. Unfortunately, though, the style also has its downside. One of her chapters begins: ‘What is the most interesting subject in the world? For all of us, it’s the same thing – ourselves. Me.’ This is so true, and there are occasions when the book is just too much about the author, not about the reader. The other slight problem is that the approach is inevitably rather rambling. Although it is interesting following the process by which she gathers her information (and also it’s cleverly written to make this approachable), the fact is that I’d like just a bit less about the process of interviewing people and a bit more of the content of the interviews.
That slight concern, which makes the book more of a chore to read than either its content or the excellent writing should, isn’t enough to put me off My Beautiful Genome, though. This is a subject we all should know more about, and Frank’s light style and storytelling verve is more than enough to get over any doubts to make this an enjoyable read.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…