A longed-for baby
An unthinkable decision
A deadly mistake
In an all-too-possible near future, when genetic engineering has become the norm for humans, not just crops, parents are prepared to take incalculable risks to ensure that their babies are perfect … altering genes that may cause illness, and more…
Susan has been trying for a baby for years, and when an impulsive one-night stand makes her dream come true, she’ll do anything to keep her daughter and ensure her husband doesn’t find out … including the unthinkable. She believes her secret is safe. For now.
But as governments embark on a perilous genetic arms race and children around the globe start experiencing a host of distressing symptoms – even taking their own lives – something truly horrendous is unleashed. Because those children have only one thing in common, and people are starting to ask questions…
Bestselling author of The Waiting Rooms, Eve Smith returns with an authentic, startlingly thought-provoking, disturbing blockbuster of a thriller that provides a chilling glimpse of a future that’s just one modification away…
I loved Eve Smith’s last dystopian novel The Waiting Rooms. I read it during the first days of lockdown number one, which exacerbated the novel’s strange feeling of being set in our world, but not quite. The author manages this feat again in Off Target, a dystopian thriller set again in the not too distant future. Everything about this world is perfectly recognisable as ours, except for the one area of progress that the author focuses on. Ever since Frankenstein in 1818 there has been a tradition of horror writing around pregnancy and motherhood. This shows that Mary Shelley had hit upon something deeply embedded in the human psyche. Monstrous births are part of the gothic and grotesque tradition and from Frankenstein’s creature onward they all ask a similar question. Who is the more monstrous, the child or their creator? The creature starts out gentle and enquiring, but Frankenstein was only interested in the moment of creation, not in how his creature would go on to live. The abandonment by his parent and the cruel way humans treat him are what shape the creature’s later behaviour. I think the author plays into this tradition, with her tale of meddling with babies in utero. Here the ‘creator’ becomes a geneticist who knows he can, but doesn’t stop to ask if he should and a parent more concerned with covering her own mistakes, than how her child might feel. The villagers with torches become the media, the protestors and eventually the terrorists.
However, I feel the author also uses great empathy when capturing those fears that grip you when coping with possible infertility. I had recurrent miscarriages in my twenties and remember all too clearly the combined joy and fear of seeing the second blue line on the pregnancy test. Joy because I wanted to be a mum, but straight afterwards a creeping dread that this baby would be lost too. For Susan, her fear is she will never become pregnant and this is killing her relationship with her husband. She fears the infertility is her fault and that she will never be able to have a child of her own. Her drunken one night stand with a colleague is a world away from the sex she’s been having, which sometimes feels like a means to an end rather than something to enjoy and express love. Once she finds out she’s pregnant, there’s no question of her not keeping the baby. She can’t imagine terminating the pregnancy she’s waited so long for. Yet her husband looks very different to her colleague; he has very tanned skin and dark eyes so what if her baby looks like him? She won’t be able to hide her indiscretion then.
Susan confides in her best friend who suggests genetic engineering, already approved in the UK for ruling out possible illnesses and disabilities. All it takes is a simple DNA screening to identify any problems and they can be eradicated. What her friend is suggesting goes much further though and means swapping out the biological father’s DNA for the preferred father’s. Offered in clinics in Eastern Europe, these more extreme modifications are not approved in the UK, but Susan is assured that just one weekend in Kiev could see her infidelity covered up for good. Susan’s only concern are those reported ‘off target’ side effects of such extensive genetic engineering. There are underground reports of modified children suffering depression, becoming aggressive, or even committing suicide. How can the clinic ensure that this won’t happen to Susan’s child? If they can’t, will the urge to keep her own secret overcome any concerns or scruples she may have?
The story was believable and gripping, especially as we moved into the portion of the story where Susan’s daughter is a teenager. Zurel has stopped speaking and with no physical problem apparent it seems this is due to psychological trauma. She is offered extra support from the school’s new SEN teacher and they develop a strong bond. Susan is already concerned that this may just be the beginning of the type of symptoms reported in other genetically modified children. I felt deeply for Zurel who is at an age where so much is changing anyway and I feared her facing a complete identity crisis. If her mother’s choice came out how would Zurel know which parts of her character are original and which are engineered? Would there be any of her biological character left or is she all engineered to be the way she is? It would feel something like finding out you are a programmed robot!
Underneath these emotions are some wider issues to consider. Should we be engineering disability out of existence? There are disability activists who would argue that no one else can decide for them whether their life is worth living. There is also an argument that a person is worth more than the money they can make, something which seems lost in todays politics and society where everything is measured with a monetary value and disabled people cost too much. As a disabled person I feel undervalued and unwanted by our government and a society that begrudges both the tax they pay to ‘fund my lifestyle’ and the wearing of a simple mask that might protect me from serious illness or death. I believe there is a social value in having disabled people in society. If we move towards eradicating all ‘faults’ from a baby’s DNA, there would only be acquired disability and how much more ostracised would those people be? Aside from these very personal musings, I thought the author asked interesting questions about nature and nurture. There are connections between certain characters that pose questions about the science, can a birth parent’s genetic material ever be totally removed? It’s clear that the scientists are working beyond what has been tried, tested and approved. As always, profit is the driving factor.
Betrayal is a central theme to the story and Susan’s betrayal of her husband’s trust is beautifully balanced with other betrayals. Her best friend betrays her for a better share price and there’s a final betrayal exposed towards the end that made me furious for Susan. As is often the case in these situations, it would have been far better if she’d faced up to the consequences of her actions in the first place. I also found the story of Susan’s blackmailer moving. From that first encounter outside the clinic where Susan goes to discuss her options, it might seem like her blackmailer is someone full of hate. Yet, despite what may seem like despicable actions, these extreme views can be covering fear, trauma and deep seated psychological problems. The revelations are thrilling, but that isn’t where the novel stops. The author takes us into the aftermath, showing that this isn’t one family’s problem. Using news articles and enquiry reports we see how the world deals with the fallout. The protests, marches and acts of terrorism, the vigils and church services for all the children affected by this quest for the ‘perfect’ child. It feels like a warning and an important exploration of a subject many people are already uneasy about, especially with the backward steps in the area of women’s reproductive rights in the USA. This is the best kind of book because the story was fascinating and tense, but also made me think deeply too. Like her novel The Waiting Rooms this book will stay with me as a glimpse into the future we might be already be engineering.
Meet The Author
Eve writes speculative fiction, mainly about the things that scare her. In this world of questionable facts, stats and news, she believes storytelling is more important than ever to engage people in real life issues. She attributes her love of all things dark and dystopian to a childhood watching Tales of the Unexpected and black-and-white Edgar Allen Poe double bills. Her new thriller, Off Target, is another chilling, prophetic page-turner set in a near future, when genetic engineering has become the norm for humans, not just crops, and parents are prepared to take incalculable risks to ensure their babies are perfect.
Eve’s previous job as COO of an environmental charity took her to research projects across Asia, Africa and the Americas, and she has an ongoing passion for wild creatures, wild science and far-flung places. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing across fields after her dog, attempting to organise herself and her family or off exploring somewhere new.
Find out more at http://www.evesmithauthor.com
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