A brave new world of gene therapy is dreamed up by podiatrist Nelson Erlick in his debut novel GermLine, a puerile mess of a biotech thriller. In an absurdly knotty, near-future plot, widowed neurosurgeon and genetics whiz Kevin Kincaid unknowingly advances a 17-year international eugenics program that is led by a tyrannous industrial cartel (hokily called “the Collaborate”) and the U.S. government—but that, astonishingly, has gone unnoticed by the Food and Drug Administration.
The studly (what else could he be?) Kincaid creates distinctive gene vectors, molecules that can insert large numbers of mind- and body-transforming genes into cells, including human embryos. His latest prototype is wanted by the Collaborate’s megalomaniacal billionaire-types E. Dixon Loring and Frederick Grayson (think Monty Burns of The Simpsons), as well as comely faux-journalist and car thief (no kidding) Helen Morgan, a presumed agent for an activist group against genetic engineering.
In one of many brainless plot points, Morgan has undergone plastic surgery to resemble Kincaid’s long-dead wife, with the idea that the doctor will fall for Morgan and surrender his new vector. Villains Loring and Grayson follow in the style of Max von Sydow’s character in Minority Report and other grossly inconsistent action-film heavies, who evidently can’t understand that their acts directly contradict the principles driving them. And as one of many possible examples of incoherent supporting players, there’s Loring’s contract enforcer Anthony Blount, whose ideas of professional stealth are explosive arson and public gunplay. (One great revelation from the outrageous scenes involving Blount is that local law enforcement will be nonexistent in the future.)
Erlick’s two-note dialogue swings painfully from technically dense to glaringly trite. When Kincaid is not spewing forth opaque medical descriptions such as, “Much of this ties into the disorder’s association with monocarbonic acid metabolism and the CAF1P60 gene on chromosome region 21q22.2 ,” he utters emotive clinkers like, “As much as you’ve hurt me I can’t deny that I have feelings for you—” To add insult to reader injury, Erlick packages his inane narrative in a chopped-up format that makes for a punishing read.
If, as Erlick promises at his web site, GermLine is just the first of his planned series of novels, then the future looks grim indeed.