Nature has played a cruel trick on Dr. Benedict Lambert, the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics. He’s achondroplastic, phenotypically abnormal, macrocephalic with pronounced lumbar lordosis: a dwarf. A brilliant geneticist himself, Ben has devoted his life to isolating the gene that made him the way he is. There’s not a lot else to do. Sex is generally unavailable to him, though his vantage point offers a few pleasures, and he gets by on vigorous masturbation. His passion for a librarian called, inevitably, Jean goes unrequited. But the vagaries of chance, which threw up his own spontaneous mutation, eventually offer him the opportunity to manipulate DNA for his own ends.
In the best traditions of speculative fiction, Simon Mawer’s discursive, beautifully plotted novel explores ethical dilemmas at the cutting edge of science through the eyes of a complex, engaging character. Alternately likeable, witty, bitter, lecherous and even vengeful, Ben invites our sympathy and then rejects it. "To be brave, you have to have a choice," he repeats through gritted teeth to those who praise his bravery. "A nanosecond is defined as the maximum length of time in normal company during which a dwarf may forget his condition," he observes after yet another sexual rejection.
Slowly the novel coalesces into an argument about eugenics, which is not as clear-cut as it might at first appear. Ben’s own condition is the result of an identifiable single-letter error in the transcription of the human genome. Should the world be spared freaks like him? And what about those with cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia or hay fever? In the new genetic marketplace, we could eliminate chance by selecting the strong, tall and socially acceptable. But as Ben is quick to point out, although we’ve already identified the genetic trait shared by 90% of murderers and 100% of rapists, there’s no great rush to eliminate the Y chromosome. All well and good, but given a chance to pass on his own genes and determine the phenotypic outcome, what will he choose?
Mawer serves up a few good in-jokes at the expense of evolutionary biologists along the way along the way. Two of the young Ben’s classmates are named Jones and Dawkins; no relation, presumably, to Steve and Richard. "Stop talking , Dawkins," snaps their biology teacher. "You never stop talking, boy, and you never have anything worth saying." But such gags are never allowed to swamp the engrossing story, which twists and turns all the way to the dark denouement that you both fear and hope the author will bottle out of delivering.