Designer Baby, Joann Mead’s latest addition to her Underlying Crimes series is a terrific read for an abundance of reasons: it’s a nail-biting story; it exposes the frightening possibilities of genetic engineering/DNA manipulation, and it has no shortage of titillating characters.
The Tiger Girl from Mead’s Tiger Tiger takes center stage in this novel too. Call her what you may. Under various façades, the Tiger Girl previously known as Mei Wong and now existing in the identity of one Mai Tran, this Asian beauty is as seductive and illusive as she is dangerous, reason enough for Interpol, US intelligence, the Russian FSB and Chinese MSS to be hot on her tail—trail, for, among other things, murder, espionage and international terrorism—quite a resume for the daughter of a simple prostitute from a small village in China. But all Tran wants is to live the good life. Real good!
Like the strain of killer influenza she developed while a research geneticist at World Genomics in her native China, there is no immunity to the womanly charms offered by the deadly Ms. Tran, this time in the “civilized” world of not so lily white Scandinavia.
After dispatching an overly aggressive and sadistic Russian tourist using the same deadly virus with which she killed innocent souls in a “proof of concept” test of her Tiger Flu virus, Tran hooks up with Swedish plastic surgeon and entrepreneur Lars Lindon, who helps her bring her concept of designer babies to the public as a marketable, albeit illegal, commodity. Lars has a cadre of wealthy clientele many of whom are more than willing to pay for genetically engineered designer offspring, perfect in detail.
Tran also ensnares two other susceptible men in her scheme to secure her fortune, while avoiding fame. The first is Hong, a young Euro-Asian scientist with expertise in DNA manipulation in Sweden on a scientific fellowship; the second is Hong’s life-long friend, Jack Asbell, a guy with similar scientific credentials who is in Gothenburg for a scientific conference. Without knowing they’re connected and neither of them knowing the other is “seeing” Tran, she uses sex to get what she wants from both men. Her plan works to perfection until Hong finds Jack and Tran in a compromising position; this results in all hell breaking loose, so Tran is forced to go on the run, this time with the susceptible Lars. And this time with every imaginable law enforcement and spy agency on the planet in hot pursuit.
Ms. Mead’s ideas of how DNA manipulation could be used to design perfect babies or to engineer bio-weapons capable of targeting a gene in a specific race or ethnic group for destruction plausibly describe the brave new world in which we now live. And her take on this world in Designer Baby is a nail-biting and thought provoking romp through a landscape littered with good intentions and bad outcomes. It will keep you up and night reading . . . and thinking—for better or worse.
Reviewed in the United States on August 13, 2020
With her book, “Tiger, Tiger,” Mead gave a forecast of the nightmare scenario of a genetically manipulated virus unleashed on an unsuspecting, and unprepared, global community. Whether the current pandemic situation has any connection to her fiction, or not, the potential of a individually created crisis is now apparently all too real.
In the new story, “Designer Baby,” the threat of advanced scientific knowledge and ability is exposed with all the human foibles of Narcissism, Vanity, Arrogance and Greed laid out in an engrossing mix of personal narratives and remarkable technical advances with madness and mayhem
This is a bright, fascinating story by an author who’s done the homework, making the science accessible.
Readers should be warned, Mead’s books might inspire thoughts to keep one up at night.
Amesh Adalja, MD
Viruses, DNA Cages, and Tigers, Oh My! A Review of Tiger Tiger
In a world in which daily headlines announce breathtaking advances in genetic engineering and synthetic biology that have the promise to eradicate disease and lengthen lifespans, it is not surprising -- and actually prudent -- that there efforts to understand how such technology could be misused. So called, dual use research of concern, is not something that is specific to biologic advances it applies to literally everything. Any technology can be misused from a drone to a fishing rod. However, it is the threat of bioterrorism coupled to rapid advances in biology that have motivated much concern and debate. Naturally, this debate has spilled into popular culture with a planned television show centered on the gene editing technology CRISPR in the works and several books, including a fiction thriller I just finished.
Tiger Tiger, the second novel in author Joann Mead's Underlying Crimes series of bio-thrillers, is the story of a biological attack on the United States and efforts to stop it. This attack is not accomplished using the usual suspects of anthrax, smallpox, plague, or botulism. It is accomplished using engineered influenza viruses -- inspired by the controversial influenza gain-of-function experiments -- for which there is no vaccine readily available. The perpetrator of the attack, an overtly nihilist philosophy professor, seeks out unscrupulous and disturbed scientist from whom to purchase these tiger influenza viruses which are derived from strains that had caused an outbreak in zoo tigers (something that has really happened). The delivery system for these viruses is no crop-duster by DNA molecular cages -- a major advance in nanomedicine.
The plot oscillates between the nefarious actors attempting to initiate their attack and the efforts of a secret group of government agents and other experts (the Partners) to discover what is occurring after the first test infections are "successful". As they race to unravel the etiologies of these infections in order to stop them before a bigger wave of infection occurs, Mead emphasizes how open source intelligence gathering from social media, for example, can be harnessed in such endeavors as her namesake character run down various clues.
I enjoyed reading the book, less for its literary value (and multiple unusual sex scenes), than for its presentation of how a bioterrorism attack might look in the world of nanotechnology, CRISPR and synthetic biology. When it comes to these technologies, I view them as pathbreaking technologies with enormous value that far eclipses any potential downside from improper use -- which isn't as easy as it might seem in a novel, a movie, or a government report. I also enjoyed a science-driven plot that was not completely fantastical and well-informed by the actual issues, the science, and the technology of the day.
The theme of Tiger Tiger may be the relative ease with which a bioterrorist attack can be executed and the increasing realization of that fact by those who would seek to do harm -- something which almost everyone in my field would agree is true.
A Tiger by the Tail
Move over Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Robin Cook, Michael Crichton and Ian Fleming because there’s a new kid on the block. Her name is Joann Mead and with just a little bit of luck she might turn the biotech thriller genre of fiction right on its head. Ms. Mead tells a tiger of a tale in her biotech thriller “Tiger Tiger” as brilliant and hedonistic research scientist Mei Wong manipulates the DNA in a strain of bird flu in a secret Chinese government lab to create the most lethal virus every known to humankind. The story of Mai and the men she manipulates to satisfy her lust sweeps across three continents with the speed of a pandemic, leaving the reader breathless, and wanting more as the plot unfolds one deadly detail at a time.