Prometheus Unbound

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Eugen Weber writes the monthly column, "L.A. Confidential."

With their clear boundaries and implied isolation, islands have attracted science fiction writers from Plato to Jules Verne. Scientific and political experiments can be tried (and may go awry) in their seclusion; nefarious schemes can be hatched or perfection pursued in their shelter. But islands are prisons too. It was while escaping from an island, Crete, that Icarus flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death for having aimed too high. In “The Experiment,” John Darnton’s protagonists, or at least his villains, conduct their experiments on an island and, because the author knows his sources, will pay for their presumption.

A little more than 100 years ago, H.G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau” (mentioned by Darnton) featured a hubristic scientist filling a remote island with beasts surgically “humanized.” Now, following in the footsteps of Brian Aldiss’ “Moreau’s Other Island,” Darnton--the author of the science thriller “Neanderthal”--offers one more anti-utopia that exists on and off an island where bioengineering runs amok. Only here the beasts that are tinkered with are human.

Despite the doubts some folk might entertain about hanging around this world too long, the scientific experiment this time deals with longevity. At least, that’s how it starts. Scientific researchers, various conspirators and their cat’s-paws are tinkering with the clock that controls the pace of aging. But candidates for their experiments risk an organ crash or may simply wither into accelerated dotage.


Prometheus created humans by fashioning them from potter’s clay. Darnton’s experimenters create their subjects out of embryo cells. Ideally, they seek the secret of life, but they settle for cloning humans who can then be mined for spare parts when their prototypes are in medical need.

In actual practice, cloning technology is changing so rapidly that “The Experiment’s” island scientists and their paymasters could more economically focus on clone tissue creation, which would allow those in need to benefit from regeneration of their own tissues with no recourse to alien donors, let alone victims. But that would cheat us of stark moral choices and even starker thrills. So forget possibilities and stick to implausibilities.

The bioengineered children reared on the secluded island are known as “Jimminies”--actually Geminies: monozygotic twins, identical in outward and inward nature, in looks, blood and general makeup. That means that the clone’s organs perfectly match the original and that the clones can be used for speculative experiments and madcap biological cocktails--until, that is, one clone escapes.

Unlike Wells and Aldiss, Darnton expands the scope of the yarn he spins from a secluded isle to the North American continent, over which the Institute for Research into Human Longevity and its minions spread their evil tentacles, corrupting even the courts, Congress, the media, the medical profession and (gasp!) the FBI. Confronting these reckless, ruthless schemers, a couple of reunited twins and one resolute lady shorn of her own clone stand (almost) alone. Through Georgia, New York, Wisconsin and Arizona, heroes and heroine pry, snoop, spy and are spied upon, pursue and are pursued by the institute’s gorillas; they are trailed, aggressed, sequestered, battered and eventually enlightened.

The efforts of the trio in its attempt to document and reveal heinous shenanigans recall old-fashioned vaudeville, as characters rush around, wander off and reappear while chasing after evidence and each other. Their travels and travails are matched only by the scientific education they receive, as victims are slap-happily injected, dissected or defaced to prevent recognition. Readers, meanwhile, are subjected to extended discussions of the moral and practical possibilities and implications of these arrogant activities. Everything you never wanted to know about mutant genes, mutant enzymes, gene therapy, cells, DNA, polymerase, telomerase, virus proteins and viral proteins proliferates.


So, if you enjoy lectures on -ologies and -isms, if medical terminology impresses and autopsies excite, “The Experiment” is the book for you. And if you enjoy morality plays in which insolent presumption against the order of nature gets its comeuppance, you’ll close the book content. Others may simply feel content to close a book that is less noir than drab.