PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am


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review of the week


by Michael Crichton

HarperCollins, HK$218

From the inventive mind of Michael Crichton comes a fine example of what can happen when the writer asks, what if?

Next grew from the Jurassic Park author's astonishment at the state of the law in relation to genetics when he attended a conference on the subject. That diseases could be owned, that researchers could take a person's tissue and do what they wanted with it - Crichton was sceptical. But the Harvard Medical School graduate's research, documented in a lengthy bibliography with comments on what each book has to offer, soon uncovered a frightening and strange truth.

And in Crichton's hands, fiction can be still stranger and scarier. Next is a complex and credible extension of present reality into the realm of the imagination - science-based fiction.

Crichton has worked real court cases, gene ownership disputes and transgenics - in particular interbreeding humans and other primates - into a seamless narrative with numerous strands.

In particular, it tackles the use and misuse of gene testing, the restrictions imposed by gene patenting - something he suggests may have looked reasonable when it began 35 years ago, but is now a terrible idea - transgenics and the use of human tissue.

Key characters include scientist Henry Kendall, who discovers his illegal transgenics experiments have led to the birth of a talking part-chimpanzee, part-human - his son, Dave. Henry kidnaps Dave, to save him from being killed, taking him home to his disbelieving family.

Then there's Frank Burnet, who's in remission from leukaemia. His cells produce cytokines, chemicals that fight cancer. Burnet's doctor has sold his cells - for about US$3 billion - to BioGen, a biotech drug company. Now a court has ruled he has no rights to his own tissue.

When those cells are deliberately destroyed, it seems BioGen may have the right to take cells from his daughter and grandson, as their bodies are partly composed of copies of his cells.

Meanwhile, Barry Sindler, divorce lawyer to the stars, has been given a great idea by a client, BioGen head Rick Diehl, who's sprung his rich wife with her tennis pro. He wants her tested genetically - for everything. If a genetic predisposition to a serious ailment can be found, what a boost to his custody claim.

'Barry realised that this genetic testing could become standard procedure for all custody cases.'

Crichton never proselytises in Next, but with two million copies in print on its launch and extensive online promotion, it has a message he wants the world to hear: that new legislation must govern the rapid advances in gene technology.

After drawing all the threads together into a satisfying, although not fully resolved conclusion, a seven-page author's note outlines the conclusions he reached from his research.

Next presents complicated information in an easily understood way and contains much food for thought. Here is a warning about the dangers of commercially controlled science run rampant, delivered as a highly readable novel.