Known best for their "First North Americans" novels of prehistory (People of the Earth, People of the Masks), award-winning archaeologists W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear take a foray into Michael Crichton's Congo country with Dark Inheritance. Fans of the "First North Americans" series should prepare to switch gears; Dark Inheritance is paced as a contemporary genetic-meddling-gone-amuck thriller. This novel swaps the richness and glacial majesty of the prehistory novels for the adrenalin thriller rush. Not bad; just (very) different.
Anthropologist Dr. Jim Dutton has raised two daughters for 13 years as a single father. What makes his parental situation truly astonishing is that one of his "girls" is a genetically augmented bonobo ape named Umber. Acting as Umber's foster parent under the auspices of British pharmaceuticals giant SAC, Dutton has made her an equal and much-loved member of his family. When Umber's communications move beyond rudimentary sign language to expressions of such abstract concepts as death and God, Dutton does the unthinkable in scientific terms: he fudges his data to hide Umber's astonishing intelligence from her SAC owners.
A colleague's awareness forces the doctor to face Umber's differences more squarely. When SAC demands Umber's return, Dutton insists on assisting her "reintroduction" to the African wilds of Equatorial New Guinea so that he might uncover the truth of Umber's origins. With his precocious teenage daughter in tow, Dutton accompanies Umber to Africa, hoping to convince SAC that Umber is too civilized to live in the wild. A surprise reunion with his daughter's mother, now a top news reporter on the trail of the SAC augmented apes, pulls the good doctor and his girls into a dangerous revelation. There is a whole compound of "mistake" apes who, unlike Umber, are exhibiting the worst aspects of their augmented humanity -- including cold-blooded murder.
Dark Inheritance gives the trendy topic of genetic tinkering an interesting treatment. How the apes are augmented isn't given the extreme detail Crichton might have, were this his book. The Gears deal instead with the moral responsibilities such a scientific trick, once accomplished, might entail. Where do these apes stop being animal and start being human? Is an ape, augmented with human genes, who killed a man in defense of a friend entitled to a criminal trial? Interesting ethical questions are posed throughout this continent-hopping thrill ride. Especially intriguing is the rudimentary religion developed by the alpha male in the altered group of apes. The authors' have put their (other) professions to good use here once again.