The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601 — Paperback — 251 pp.
Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.
“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.
I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)
After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.
Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.
The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.
Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.
The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.
Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.
Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.
Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.
This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.