October 1999

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The Experiment:
The Next Jurassic Park?

by Charlie Onion

The Experiment
John Darnton
421 pp.

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The Experiment, John Darnton's second scientific thriller, raises an interesting ethical question. Suppose a group of scientists has perfected the cloning process and is growing identical offspring as living insurance packages against the inevitable organ failure that comes with old age. The practical benefits are obvious: since the donor and recipient are genetically identical, there would be no worries about the organ's being rejected by the recipient's body. No drugs, no waiting lists, no race against time to find the perfect match.

But here's the ethical rub: since the donor-clone is genetically identical to its source (its mirror image, really), why should we consider it less valuable as a human--or as Immanuel Kant would say, as an end-in-itself?


The Experiment begins with this premise: a secret lab has been set up by a group of renegade scientists on an island off the coast of the southeastern United States. Their purpose: to create successive generations of clones, with the hope that the recipient's life-span can be extended indefinitely with a steady line of replacement parts.

The island community is run like (or rather, by) a cult: the founder, Dr. Rincon, is a mesmeric, unseen figure, and the clones (who call themselves the Jimminies) are kept isolated from the outside world and fed a steady supply of medicine and anti-religion diatribes by a group of twenty Elder Physicians. Despite the popular notion that cloning is a recent science, the secret community has been actively run for over thirty years, and it has produced several generations of potential donors (the younger clones are kept isolated on an adjacent Nursery island). But--inevitably--something goes wrong, and a few of the clones begin to rebel, albeit naively.

First, an adolescent boy nicknamed Raisin begins to act up. Then he convinces his best friend Skyler to begin testing the closed society's restrictions as well. When Raisin disappears and the scientists tell Skyler that his friend drowned during a failed escape attempt, Skyler decides to take up his friend's cause. Soon, Skyler and his secret girlfriend--another clone, of course--find themselves on the verge of breaking into the community's password-protected computer files.

Then the seemingly healthy girlfriend abruptly dies--always a bad sign in thrillers, of course--and Skyler is forced to escape on his own. Immediately.


In the meantime, a thirty-year-old newspaper reporter named Jude Harley gets a tip to investigate a murder case in upstate New York. The victim's fingertips have been burnt off and the skin peeled off his face to hide his identity. Initially, the doctor conducting the autopsy places the victim's age between twenty-two and twenty-six. But he's astonished to find the internal organs belong to a much older man. And his teeth are cavity-free and perfect--as if he'd never needed to visit a dentist. "No prints and now no dental records," the doctor says. "That makes him practically untraceable."

Before Jude can pursue the case, he's assigned to a seemingly minor story on twins, and he's given the name of a woman in the field--Elizabeth Tierney, a thirty-year-old researcher with an interesting theory that twins share a single soul. Inevitably, Jude and Elizabeth fall in love. Then Skyler shows up in Jude's apartment building, dirty and thin, but still recognizable as...Jude's twin. And Elizabeth, Skyler is shocked to realize, is the spitting image of his dead girlfriend.

Improbable coincidences, you might think. But what if they're being driven through the events on purpose by unseen hands? Slowly, the notion dawns on the three characters that, in fact, it might not be a series of coincidences that drove them together. But who is behind it? The government? The cult? And who, precisely, seems so dead-set on killing them before they get answers?


Twenty years ago, Darnton's plot would have seemed fantastic--a philosopher's quandary, meant more to give an ethics question shape than anything else. Now, though, in the Age of Dolly (the world's first cloned sheep), it's no longer merely hypothetical. Politicians have debated whether laws should be passed world-wide to prohibit human cloning, only to be confronted with the obvious practical question that Darnton raises: what's to keep a small renegade organization from working on the sly--offshore, perhaps, or in a nondescript lab in the middle of nowhere?

After all, it's one thing to keep a large pharmaceutical company from branching out into bioengineering with great fanfare and soaring stock prices. It's quite another to keep a wealthy individual from quietly commissioning the creation of an extra liver or a kidney, in the event that he might need it.

The fact that it's a breathing, thinking, feeling human storing the organs could be the best-kept secret in the world--even from the donor himself. Indeed, we might each of us be clones--or unwitting recipients--in a secret bid against mortality. Who, after all, is to say?


Of course, The Experiment is, in the end, a thriller, and while he's not a great prose stylist, Darnton delivers enough plot twists and surprises to keep you reading late into the night (which most arcane science books can't do, unfortunately). He's particularly good at provoking that delicious paranoia which makes you question each new character's intent: good guy? Bad guy? Should Jude be trusting this guy?

At some point, readers might even find the paranoia creeping into their own lives. And this is where Darnton pulls off one of his better tricks: he manages to get his readers to personalize his ethical questions. For example: have you ever gotten the feeling you're not alone in the world? That you might have an unknown twin soul somewhere? Strange feeling--and not all that rare. Now imagine that you have been told, quite suddenly, that you need a new kidney to avert premature death. Would you find yourself, despite your better nature, hoping that twin soul would step forward and be more of a twin kidney and less a twin soul?

Steven Spielberg has already bought the film rights to Darnton's first novel (Neanderthal), and The Experiment, with its science-outracing-ethics theme, seems ripe for Spielberg as well. Who knows: a year or two from now, we may be debating clones and Kantian ethics the way Spielberg and Crichton's Jurassic Park made us wonder about dinosaurs and DNA replication.


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Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
riverrun enterprises, inc.