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Robert J SawyerHere's a previously published (on the now-defunct Diversebooks Reviews site) review of Frameshift, a Genetics-based crime thriller by Robert J Sawyer; which at the time I considered 'Science – even hard science – it is for sure. And I hope by God that it is fiction. Not sure if that makes it (hard) SF – but I’m sure it makes it a very impressive book, despite some flaws.'

Robert J Sawyer, double Nebula winner, Hugo nominee (didn’t win it…) and winner of countless other prizes provides us with story from the Human Genome Project:

Dr Philip Tardivel is a Genetic Researcher at the Human Genome Project (which, as the story takes place, is not finished yet. If you can ever finish such a piece of work, give or take the latest tabloid headline of ‘Human Genome decoded!’). He is liaised with Molly Brown, a Doctor and lecturer in Psychology, who has telepathic abilities (she can read ‘literal’ thoughts of people physically close to her – more a curse than a blessing!). His boss is Burian Klimus, an old, unfriendly, Ukrainian emigrant and Nobel Prize Winner for the ‘Klimus Method’.

In another strand we get Avi Meyer, son of a Holocaust survivor who broke out of Treblinka during a prisoner revolt (the episode is part of the book), and now works for the Department of Justice in a special unit which tracks down Nazi War Criminals in hiding.

The story unfolds from there – genetics mixes with murder mixes with neo (and old time) Nazis mixes with health and live insurance (who love genetic testing…) mixes with ethics mixes with some fiction (I hope it is!) to form a fascinating and engrossing read.


There’s a lot of ‘hot’ and contemporary concepts in this book – starting with the hot potato of Insurance companies using genetic testing and prediction to decide who they insure for what premium, and the ‘voluntary Eugenics’ approach of people who know they have defective genes refusing to sire children. It depicts the discussion and theories on how humanity developed and spread, and describes a breakthrough as Burian Klimus gets his hands on Neanderthal DNA (I think the story is a precursor for Sawjer’s ‘Neanderthal Parallax’ series) and the associated racist questions.

It contains another strand starting at Treblinka, with one sadistic guard call Ivan ‘Grozny’ The Terrible, and with the protagonists of a prisoner revolt, tracing them into the now and here, including a failed show process in Israel against a man suspected to be Ivan.

The book also contains a good measure of hard, genetic science (it reminds me of the genetics parts in Hofstaedters ‘Goedel Escher Back’ – now there’s a book you ought to read!), junk DNA, frameshift mutations (thus the title), and of course Molly, who has such a mutation – what a challenge for a researcher into genetics like Philip!

So what about the book in general? The genetics parts are fascinating and realistic (where they’re speculation and not hard science), and so is the Nazi/racism/war criminal strand in the story.

Humans, human behaviour and interaction are a bit clichéd, and sometimes nearly painful to read (not Sawjer’s strongest point at that time in his career!), and the story goes completely OTT when Philip turns amateur-sleuth (think CSI meets McGuiver. In a very cheesy way.)

The story itself is great, with some surprising twists and turns; a fascinating and hard-hitting read, and highly recommended if you’ve got any interest into genetics, the associated ethical and moral questions, and the scientific and historical background that defines this very modern field. Go get it!

More Robert J Sawyer


Title: Frameshift

Author: Robert J Sawyer

Reviewer: Markus

Reviewer URL:

Publisher:  Voyager/Harper Collins

Publisher URL:

Publication Date: 1999

Review Date: 20 August 2006

ISBN: 0006483208

Price: UKP5.99

Pages: 343p

Format: Paperback

Topic: SF

Topic: Genetics




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