SNAKES AND LADDERS By Penelope Farmer (Little, Brown, $272) THIS is a social issue novel. It paints a gloomy picture of how a large multi-national drug company, Bader-Kleitz of Basel, Switzerland, subjects native populations of Third World countries to human experimentation. The drug, a hopeful improvement in the treatment for epilepsy, has unknown side-effects. Worse still, it's not clear throughout the experiment how the patients in the remote areas of Kenya and Ecuador will be monitored, by whom, and to what clinical usefulness. The novel is not a horror story as one might expect. Rather, it is the story of mismanagement, ineptitude, confusion, over-blown expectations, amateurism, cultural impediments, professional jealousy among the academic investigators and wasted money. In short, the medical, sociological, and anthropological study which serves as the centrepiece of the novel, comes to nothing or very little. In this regard the novel is not especially satisfying because it leads, after almost 500 pages, to a crashing anti-climax. Moreover, Ms Farmer seems to mistrust her material, so one can argue that the novel is not about drug companies and international incompetence, but about the private lives of the principal characters. Carter Jacoman, project co-ordinator for Bader-Kleitz, chooses David Kern, a London neurologist, to direct the medical experiments. His wife, Anna, a journalist and the novel's central character, undergoes on-the-job training as medical anthropologist and sociologist. Her conflicts with the drug company and her husband's profession are sometimes philosophically interesting, but she (and Ms Farmer) are more interested in her interpersonal relationships with Jacoman and her husband. The best part of the novel is Ann's parody of the scientific report she's supposed to write to conclude the project. In her journal she writes instead a long essay, complete with footnotes and references, detailing how the project disrupted her marriage and her sympathies for Jacoman. The passage is funny, an excellent parody of scholarly writing, and wholly too late to rescue the novel from its thematic schizophrenia. By trying too hard to avoid being an altogether topical, ideological novel, and by over-working the slender personal dramas of the characters, Snakes and Ladders becomes a novel overwritten by 200 pages.