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Knowing the Americans love of litigation I'm amazed that no one has sued author James Rollins for portraying several US defence suppliers as the supporters of modern day Dr Mengeles. Although Mr Rollins goes to great lengths to point out that this novel is a work of fiction it falls into the grey area where the unthinkable is actually possible even plausible. Its common practice within the farming community to purchase centrifuged semen for artificial insemination that guarantees a ninety percent probability of a female calf purely based upon the separation of the male and female spermatozoa at a given speed. Scientists can already genetically engineer human embryos to ensure they are free of specific genetic defects so why shouldn't they also be able to select other characteristics to ensure that they are also present and who better to demand such a product but the armed forces. Imagine the power of a cloned super army of tailor made soldiers and you get a glimpse into the future.
Of course every experiment has humbler beginnings if only for speed. First you work on a species with a maturation time of several days that way their entire life span is over in a relatively short time frame and any deviations from the expected are also rapidly obvious. Once testing on a species such as Drosophilla (the common fruit fly) has been achieved researchers move on to more complex organisms, usually mice, once again because of speed but also because of cost. After success is achieved here testing then moves on to the realm of the ape since primates have the closest genetic make up to humans. If a technique works on a monkey then there's a greater possibility that human experimentation will have a positive outcome too.
Deep underground beneath a zoo in Baghdad just such experimentation is being performed although the untimely intervention of the Iraq War results in the decimation of the zoo requiring the transportation of several live subjects to an alternative facility. The ship on which the animals are travelling is destined for a top secret laboratory in the USA but it encounters a tropical storm en route and the ship is severely damaged. Agents of the US border patrol board the unmanned ship and contact a research vet named Laura to assist with the identification and transportation of the animals. The team also note with a degree of concern that one cage is open and some of its occupants missing. The damage done by the exiting animals and the size of the newborn cub left behind give the team cause for concern. Far more concerning though are the disembowelled decapitated corpses of the crew found on a nearby island, dragged there for a quick snack by the escapees before fleeing the scene.
The novel follows Laura and Border Patrol Special Task Force operative Jack Menard as they attempt to track these animals whilst simultaneously discovering what makes them so unique.
Altar of Eden succeeds where Jurassic Park did not. This is no tourist trip. It's a very real threat in the heart of America, more importantly it's a clandestine approach to a tempestuous subject where the possibility of humans genetically engineered to be more than nature would allow them to be is a very real prospect in the not too distant future. The debate already rages regarding the right to abort an unwanted foetus on the basis of it being an unwanted sex, imagine then if you could pay to have a baby who was guaranteed to be as intelligent as Einstein or Marie Curie or who could run as fast as Linford Christie. Every parent hopes their child will succeed at something, imagine then that you could make that possible before birth and wonder what the armed forces of various countries would pay to have a telepathic army of perfect killing machines.
It's an odd subject choice for a book but one which is well executed with a few minor annoyances such as the reliance upon siblings and friends of the key characters in the face of adversity in addition to the special forces officers. It wouldn't happen in reality and it detracts from an otherwise engaging read.