Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a month or two. I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Daniel Suarez’s 2017 novel “Change Agent” that I found online when I was looking for cyberpunk-style novels.
Although this novel is actually a mixture of biopunk, cyberpunk and thriller fiction, the idea behind it seemed interesting enough for me to get a copy – even if I didn’t get round to reading it for quite a few weeks.
So, let’s take a look at “Change Agent”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
Set in 2045, the novel begins in an illegal gene editing clinic run by a company called Trefoil. Two lawyers, Mr and Mrs Cherian, are visiting the clinic in order to look at some possible improvements for the baby they are planning to have. Although the couple are a little uncertain about everything, the clinic’s augmented reality presentation and the fact that all of their friends are having enhanced babies wins them over. However, before they can sign up for anything, there is an armed police raid on the facility. In the chaos, Mrs. Cherian is shot by a police officer.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, a programmer for Interpol called Kenneth Durand spends some time with his family before talking to one of the detectives, Michael Ji Yu-Chang, he works with. Kenneth has heard about the raid on the clinic and feels responsible for Mrs. Cherian’s death because he wrote the algorithm that allowed the authorities to locate the clinic. After some discussion about this, they report to the HQ of Interpol’s Genetic Crimes Division, where a visiting FBI agent called Marcotte gives a presentation about a mysterious human trafficking gang called the Huli Jing that have also been hoovering up as much genetic data as they can get their hands on.
On the way back from work, Kenneth’s self-driving taxi has a mysterious error, forcing him to get out and walk to the nearest MRT rail station. On the way there, someone in the crowd injects him with something. He has a violent allergic reaction and falls into a coma. When he wakes up in hospital several weeks later, his Interpol colleagues are there… to question him. Whatever was in that syringe has turned him into an exact duplicate of the leader of the Huli Jing, a very wanted criminal…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that you shouldn’t judge it by the first seventy pages or so. Although the novel is fairly slow to start and begins with a lot of background stuff, ethical debates etc… it does turn into a more compelling and faster-paced thriller novel after this 🙂 The best way to describe this novel is that it’s a bit like what you’d get if you mixed certain William Gibson, Clive Cussler and Alex Garland novels together with the movie “Face/Off” and the TV series “Burn Notice” 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, preachy and/or contrived at times, but it is still a reasonably compelling sci-fi thriller.
Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Although the novel contains quite a lot of backstory about how the growth in synthetic biology has reshaped industry, geopolitics etc… it is very much a 2010s sci-fi novel. In other words, this novel includes, explores and/or name-checks almost every piece of “futuristic” modern technology it can (eg: CRISPR, drones, cryptocurrencies, lab-grown meat, self-driving cars, augmented reality, big data etc…). Whilst this lends the novel a certain degree of realism and the author has clearly done a lot of research, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is the kind of novel that probably won’t feel very futuristic in 20-30 years’ time – which is probably both a good and a bad thing.
This novel is very much an “issues”-based sci-fi novel too, with the story’s biopunk elements (eg: gene editing etc…) being used to discuss topics like nature, medical ethics and – most prominently – the nature of identity. Although some elements of this are fairly intriguing, the novel does sometimes come across as a bit heavy-handed and preachy at times.
Whether it is the scenes of psychological horror and body horror related to genetic editing or how the fact that people are able to change their bodies is described as a way for people to regain privacy in a surveillance-filled world and then the only examples of this shown to the reader are criminals using it to get away with stuff, this novel does have a slight conservative cautiousness to it. Something further hammered home by the rather moralistic main character.
In addition to these futuristic issues, the novel also discusses all sorts of realistic issues too. These are handled slightly better and they include things like climate change, human trafficking, refugees, economic inequality, modern slavery etc… The novel is able to make points about these things reasonably well and they also add a certain degree of grim realism that helps to counterbalance all of the novel’s more glamourous and/or “over the top” elements.
In terms of the novel’s thriller elements – they are reasonably good, even if they aren’t always used to their full potential. Although the novel takes a while to really get started, it is a compelling one that lends itself well to binge-reading 🙂 The premise of someone being framed for a series of crimes and having to go on the run is an inherently suspenseful one and, in the earlier parts of the novel, this is used to it’s full potential – with Kenneth having to hide, run, think etc.. in order to survive in a hostile world. This is also paired with some well-written action-thriller moments, some scenes focusing on the Interpol detectives trying to catch Kenneth and some tense scenes set in the criminal underworld.
However, the grippingly nail-biting tension of Kenneth being just one small mistake away from death is at it’s very best for only a small part of the novel. After a while, Kenneth just teams up with various sympathetic criminals who almost always seem to have some contrived way to solve whatever problem he’s facing (shark-shaped submarine, anyone?) or somewhere for him to hide. Yes, this allows for various spectacular set pieces, Clive Cussler-style action sequences and visits to lots of interesting locations, but you don’t always get the grippingly suspenseful feeling that Kenneth is surviving by his wits alone. Still, it is a reasonably fun rollercoaster ride of a story nonetheless.
In terms of the characters, they are a bit of a mixed bag. This is one of those novels where some of the supporting characters and/or villains are more interesting than the main character. Some of the side-characters (eg: Frey, Otto, Marcotte etc..) are interesting, complex people who have a real feeling of personality and help to add extra life to the novel. On the other hand, Kenneth is a bit of a generic “moralistic”, “family man”, ex-military and/or detective “hero” character who, whilst he has emotions and backstory, isn’t really as interesting as several of the side-characters.
As for the writing, it is really good. This novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to both make the story very readable and keep things moving at a decent pace, whilst also being formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and to make the story’s locations (eg: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar) feel vivid and realistic.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 398 pages in length, this novel is a little on the longer side of things – but I ended up binge-reading about two-thirds of it in a single day. Likewise, whilst the pacing of the earlier parts of the novel is a bit on the slow side (with lots of backstory, debates, scientific explanations etc…), when the novel remembers that it is a thriller novel, then things improve significantly. The rest of the novel is this wonderfully compelling mixture of suspense, drama and fast-paced action, with these elements being juggled in a way that ensures that they never wear out their welcome.
All in all, whilst this novel isn’t a perfect one, it was still reasonably fun to read. Yes, it takes a while to really become gripping, the main character isn’t as interesting as the side characters and the story can also be a bit preachy too. But, if you can overlook these flaws, then you’ll get to enjoy a compelling thriller novel that also includes a lot of interesting “realistic” sci-fi, atmospheric locations and other good stuff.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.