Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!

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