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Frameshift

by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer has been making quite a name for himself recently in science fiction circles. In a handful of years the Thornhill, Ontario novelist has gone from writing pleasant but lightweight fantasy stories involving a race of intelligent dinosaurs to knocking out tightly written science fiction thrillers. In the process he’s been capturing a lot of attention; his novel The Terminal Experiment picked up the 1995 Nebula Award for best novel and was also nominated for a Hugo Award.

His current outing, Frameshift, involves a French-Canadian scientist, Pierre Tardivel, working in Berkeley, California on the Human Genome Project, a research program to map human DNA. Tardivel has a 50-50 chance of having the gene for Huntington’s disease, and while trying to get health insurance he comes to suspect his insurance company is secretly taking genetic samples from policyholders and murdering those with the genes for disabling – and costly – illnesses.

As usual, Sawyer has done his scientific research. Frameshift will tell readers more about DNA coding than most people want to know (the novel even includes a table showing what “codes” refer to which amino acids). In recent novels, Sawyer has proven to be a tight writer who likes to grapple with big and interesting existential issues. He has also shown a fondness for populating his internationally successful novels with Canadian characters. All of this is present in Frameshift, but the novel still suffers from several disabling flaws.

Far too often, Sawyer tips his hand early. At one point, Tardivel and his wife have a baby but it is too easy to deduce what is wrong with the tot before Sawyer actually reveals it. But even more crippling is that it is next to impossible to accept the story’s basic premise.

Sawyer struggles mightily to have us believe that a health insurance company could get away with knocking off its customers who have “bad” genes. Yes, California law forbids companies from refusing insurance based on genetic information. Yes, the numerous insurance agents who take the genetic samples apparently believe the samples are only being taken for “actuarial purposes.” But ultimately the reader is left feeling doubtful.