A new sci-fi thriller about CRISPR makes gene editing terrifyingly easy to understand

Under the covers.
Under the covers.
Image: Dutton/Penguin Books
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The webbed world we live in now would have seemed like science fiction not long ago. Thriller writer Daniel Suarez believes that coming changes will be much more dramatic. He predicts that by 2045 bespoke babies—plus pets, plants, bacteria, and more—will be all the rage.

“Where silicon and software powered 20th century innovation, the 21st century will bring living technology—a fourth industrial revolution of synthetic biology and genetic editing; the hardware and software of life itself,” Suarez says. His latest book, Change Agent, to be released in the US on April 18, considers the implications of this revolution.

It’s a sci-fi thriller about a topic few non-nerds would normally consider thrilling: Crispr (short for ”clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”).

Scientists are excited about genetic editing because they can use it to cut, copy, and paste the data of life, potentially to cure disease, or grow new versions of crops to withstand climate change. Entertainment types like Crispr because it’s new storytelling territory—NBC is creating a scientific thriller starring Jennifer Lopez. Suarez believes it will alter the course of humanity.

The writer was a systems analyst before authoring tech bestsellers, like Daemon and Freedom, a two-part novel published in 2006 and 2010, Kill Decision in 2012, and Influx in 2014. He’s a stylistic heir to Michael Crichton, while conceptually channeling Philip K. Dick—whose writing inspired the movie Minority Report, for example—peering into the future and its shadows.

Change Agent opens in an underground embryo lab in India, where genetic editing is explained to a couple considering modifications for their as-yet-unborn child. The lab is illegal and so is what the parents are planning.

In this world—set in 2045—genetic editing is strictly regulated; legal use on humans is limited to medically necessary cases. As a result, the global upper classes—who live in “the Bubble” (Suarez isn’t super subtle)—must resort to illegal means to ensure their children have the optimal genes designed to make them especially intelligent or athletic or musical or creative or all of these. Meanwhile, the poor, who can’t afford edits, are forced by circumstances into providing the bulk of the information in the criminal genetic databank.

But before the couple can complete their consultation, the underground lab is raided by police and readers are introduced to one of the book’s major themes: in the future, crime will be globalized, sophisticated, and run by scientifically-oriented gangs trafficking humans to collect genetic data in order to sell black-market edits to the rich.

The story’s protagonist, Kenneth Durand, is an Interpol agent whose work helps to shut down such illegal labs. He is not a luddite; he just wants to do the right thing. Yet when Durand is made to undergo a dramatic genetic edit that rips away his identity, he finds himself realizing that he too is willing to break rules to get back what he lost.

Change Agent brings science to life in nearly 500 action-packed pages. In fact, it’s so action-packed that fans of more literary speculative fiction (of the type created by Yvgeny Zamyatin, George OrwellJG Ballard and Aldous Huxley) may recoil initially at this thick tome with its simple sentences.

But the simplicity seems to be key to Suarez’s success; he’s not overly burdened with concerns about innovative language and spins a good yarn. Indeed, it’s a little hard to escape the sense that the author has a formula and is hitting certain specified marks, as if writing science fiction were itself a scientific endeavor.

Still, the upside of Suarez’s style is that he raises the most pressing and perplexing ethical questions humanity faces with minimal fuss and consternation, dropping philosophical bombshells—of the sort we in the real world struggle to even broach—without flinching. What does it mean to be human? Who are you? Will you still be you if your physical form is altered?