SEBASTIAN FAULKS The Seventh Son. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Sebastian Faulks’ latest novel explores the consequences of amoral genetic research in a not-too-distant future.
Alaric teaches disinterested children history in an English comprehensive school.
… he enjoyed giving them an idea that the world had not always been as it was in 2030. ‘We can only understand where we’re going if we know where we came from. But we are not the terminus. Oh no.’
Alaric Pederson, Talissa Adam and Lukas Parn are all interested in history in different ways.
Alaric’s interest is personal. He has just donated the spermatozoa that he hopes will produce a child for him and his wife, Mary. Mary had uterine cancer in her twenties, which necessitated the removal of her womb, so they have secured a surrogate pregnancy with a public-private partnership between the NHS and the Parn Institute. He knows they will now be part of ongoing research into the effects of ‘Historic Habitat Adaptation and Drift’ (HAD), or in old-fashioned terms, ‘ethnicity’ and genetic inheritance.
Talissa is American. She is interested in ‘the distant but discoverable human past’. Her special interest is in a newly discovered ancient human species, Homo vannesiensis; and in 2030 she is searching for a post-doctoral position in genomics. She cannot afford the fees, so when we first meet her she is seriously considering becoming a surrogate mother in a research project being run by the Parn Institute in London as a way of ‘funding her career’.
Lukas Parn, an Australian entrepreneur who ‘had made a dozen fortunes from wave power and biotech’ and who, as Talissa tells her friend Susan, is ‘the Buddha of Bullshit. Rich as hell’, has developed an interest in anthropology and genetics. He wants to know ‘what makes human beings such paragons’:
‘There’s a lot of talk about how clever all these [earlier] human species were. But only we have real cognition … the way I see it, our species is hard to explain in Darwinian terms.’
So, Parn is funding a paleoanthropology research program attached to the University of London. As he tells his head genetic biologist, Dr Mark Wood:
‘They do top genetic work. Looking at old bones. Sequencing the genome of Homo vannesiensis. That kind of thing. I know the people there. In the labs. I have access. ….
‘I’m interested in hybrids. What they can tell us about ourselves. How we got to be the way we are. The inexplicable leap. The “saltation”, as you call it.’
All Mark Wood has to do to ensure an increase in salary, a huge bonus, and acclaim in the eventual scientific paper, is ‘A simple switch. One guy’s sperm for another. Before it hits the egg.’ Parn is clearly unconcerned about the ethics of this action. He tells Wood that the resulting child will be ‘of incredible scientific interest’ and:
‘If it came to a civil case for breach of contract, I’d bear the damages … it would be very hard to prove. They’d most likely offer a “deferred prosecution agreement”.’
‘You plead guilty, pay a large fine and promise to be a good boy. After a fixed period of good behaviour you’re deemed to have wiped the slate clean. … Don’t worry. I’d have you covered. But it won’t get that far. Plus, you know how often these mistakes happen.’
Faulks provides this scene-setting in the early chapters of the book, and we get to know something of the lives and the characters of those involved. He then takes us through the personal decisions and the processes involved in creating the child, Seth, for whom Talissa acts as surrogate mother and who becomes the son of Alaric and Mary.
Talissa, Alaric and Mary know nothing of the switch, and Seth, when he is born, is like any other baby – ‘perfect’ in Mary’s eyes, and an ‘ugly little bugger’ according to Alaric. He grows and develops normally, becoming a ‘solemn’ little boy, affectionate with his parents, ‘thickset with wide ribs and short legs’, passionate about football, and with a special affinity for animals. There is nothing to distinguish him from the other children in the school playground, who ‘represented every variation of humanity and recognised no differences between themselves’.
Talissa, who returned to America after the birth, completes the mandatory twelve years separation from Seth and his parents and then travels to London to meet them again. Seth seems like a normal pre-teen, still passionate about football, hard to get talking about himself, hungry for burgers, and with no special plans for the future. He has shown a disregard for the results of some of his actions, almost drowning in deep water during a school outing to the swimming baths because he couldn’t swim; and he surprises Talissa by knowing that a cat would appear on their walk almost thirty seconds before it does. Talissa finds he is not as she imagined, but a little solemn and has ‘learned how to behave with people outside the family’; he seems practical but with ‘not much warmth’. She does feel a powerful emotion when she is with him – not mother’s love, although she had ‘leased him a room for nine months’, but something she cannot name.
Talissa returns to America and, as a parting gift, Mary gives Talissa a locket containing a curl of Seth’s hair. Finding it in a drawer a few years later, Talissa, on an impulse, sends a strand to a colleague asking him to pass it to a friend for a DNA test. It is not a spoiler to reveal that the result is shocking, and it stirs up the complex emotions and events that Faulks deals with in the rest of the book.
Secrecy, emotional revelations, consequences, drama, science, and, finally, a journey fraught with dangers, all become absorbing. Faulks, a bestselling author, writes well and the underlying themes of neurodiversity, our own genetic heritages, human evolution, human responses to difference, and the power and corruption made possible by wealthy individuals, are skilfully woven into the story of seemingly ordinary lives.
The explanation of complex genetic research and new knowledge is ably handled by Dr Mark Wood, tasked with instructing a panel of non-scientists. He tells them that a link between different parts of the human brain is shown to be responsible for self-consciousness, and a ‘misstep’ in this connection is said to explain the reason for mental disturbances ranging from schizophrenia to dementia. I didn’t fully understand these explanations, and probably only a geneticist could say whether they are valid or not, but since Faulks has set his novel a few years hence and has invented a few technological advances (such as the super-fast, hyperloop, Airtube 4 canister transport from Boston to New York) he is entitled to these explanations, true or not.
There are several seeming loose ends in this book, although Faulks’ genetic explorations of difference do eventually help to explain them. One is the presence of Talissa’s first love, Felix, in the early part of the book, where he appears almost irrelevant to the story. Another is a casual reference to dementia towards the end of the book, which partly explains Parn’s obsession with genetics. And an incident during a camping trip in France, which Talissa makes with Alaric and Mary as a getting-to-know-each-other holiday before Seth’s birth, raises a degree of tension and fear, but goes nowhere and the tension just peters out. Much later, Talissa thinks briefly that the ‘broad-chested, quite short, unkempt’ man who appears frighteningly as she is exploring a dark and derelict mansion, might have been an hallucination.
Seth, too, is rather sketchily characterised, although his eventual distress at being identified and marked out as different is very real. I would have liked to know him better. I found the relationship between him and Talissa towards the end of the book too strange to be believable, and the ending seemed to me a little too neat, as if Faulks didn’t quite know how to proceed from there. However, given the recent rapid advances in genetics and the current lack of controls, The Seventh Son offers a plausible, but worrying, scenario.
Sebastian Faulks The Seventh Son Hutchinson Heinemann 2023 PB 368pp $34.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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