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Frameshift by Robert J Sawyer
(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 343 pages, paperback; published 5 July 1999.)

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There is science fiction and there is fiction about science. The two do not often meet convincingly. With Frameshift, Robert Sawyer seems to have managed to bridge the gap between the two, and in the process produced an engrossing and satisfying read.

Frameshift starts out like a thriller, something that Michael Crichton might have written had he less of an eye on a book's Hollywood potential. Sawyer combines a number of unlikely ingredients: a series of unexplained murders, the Human Genome Project, a Nazi war criminal, a medical insurance company with some peculiar clauses, a Nobel prize-winner with an obsession for Neanderthals, a woman with limited telepathy. Into these basic ingredients, he mixes a Canadian research geneticist with a problem (he has a fifty percent chance of dying prematurely from Huntington's disease), who combines with all of the above and acts as catalyst in a dense and twisting plot with some surprising results.

The book is very solidly based in current genetics (I learned a lot about the subject just in the reading), and Sawyer is very skilful in making such a difficult discipline understandable to the layperson. He is also very good with characters. The central relationship between the geneticist, Pierre Tardivel, and Molly Bond (a psychiatry lecturer with a secret of her own) is particularly finely drawn, and forms the bedrock on which the rest of the story is secured.

Without giving the intricate plot away (some parts of it are easily guessed, while others are well-hidden and take some considerable time to come to light), it is difficult to give the flavour of this complex and very moving book. Sawyer manages to tie everything together well by the end, and even throws in a delightful theological twist to the genetics, just for good measure.

It's a fiction about science, and it is science fiction, too. There may not be a rocketship in sight, or an alien, but by heck it doesn't half stretch the old sense of wonder.

Encourage the man, and buy it!

Review by John D Owen.

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© John D Owen 21 August 1999