Book Review: Change Agent

Change Agent
Published By: Dutton Books
Publication Date: April 18, 2017
Page Count: 416
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - Techno Thriller/Science Fiction

The year is 2045 and genetic editing of embryos is permitted, but only for a specific list of congenital disorders. All other genetic modifications are considered illegal, and people buying or selling those services are prosecuted. Kenneth Durand, a member of Interpol’s Genetic Crime Division, analyzes huge amounts of data to discover anomalous trends that signify the presence of illicit gene editing labs. When his information leads to the destruction of a Huli Jing laboratory, Durand becomes the target of the largest and most dangerous gene editing cartel. In an attempt to both kill Durand and fake the death of the Huli Jing’s leader, Marcus Wyckes, a Huli Jing operative injects Durand with a genetic editing compound. Nearly five weeks later, Durand wakes up in a hospital bed looking like and having the DNA of the Wyckes who is now suspected of Durand’s death. 

Despite a somewhat slow and preachy start, Change Agent was an engaging techno-thriller. Suarez has created an intriguing future of cars made of chitin, “deathless” meat from cellular agriculture, and keratin-silica hybrid knives all grown by specialty algae, bacteria, and yeasts. Change Agent surprised me with how differently a society could produce what it needed and how little human nature changes despite technological advances. Once Durand is on the run to clear his name and bring down the Huli Jing, the futuristic setting becomes integral to the story. 

Of course, my favorite things about Change Agent, and any science fiction for that matter, are the Big Ideas the author explores. Some of the great themes in this book are: Does your DNA determine who you are? If it doesn’t, what is the basis of individual identity? How much of who we are depends on others’ perceptions of us? Despite some problems with the science in the book, this book would be a great discussion starter for any science fiction or thriller book club. 

My two gripes about the book are the scientific leaps of faith the reader is asked to accept and the cookie cutter characters. Regarding DNA edits to grown humans, I was willing to suspend my disbelief that such a tremendous thing (changing roughly 37 trillion cells without killing them) was possible. What annoyed me is that someone would take on the exact appearance, muscle mass, etc. of the person who supplied the DNA. Part of how we look and how strong we are also depends on how we have lived. Do we eat well? Do we exercise? Is that aerobic exercise or strength training? Are we smokers or heavy drinkers, etc.? Suarez makes a point of Durand being a lithe runner-type, in contrast to Wyckes being thickly muscled. So where did that extra mass and muscle development come from? 

Regarding the characters, Kenneth Durand, is a stereotypical “white hat” protagonist: a by-the-book cop who just wants to get his life and his family back. I don’t know that Durand is technically a “Mary Sue” (or Gary Stu, if you like), but he’s so good that it was difficult to see him as a person at times. The same goes for the main villain of the story, Marcus Wyckes. He was so unabashedly evil that it hardly made sense – even bad guys have soft spots for something! My favorite character ended up being Bryan Frey, a smart-mouthed back-alley gene hacker with dwarfism who comes into the story about a third of the way through. I loved every scene with him! 

 To the extent you are willing to suspend disbelief and root for a one-dimensional good guy, Change Agent is a fun summer read.

New York Times bestselling author Daniel Suarez delivers an exhilarating sci-fi thriller exploring a potential future where CRISPR genetic editing allows the human species to control evolution itself.

On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle— and his transformation begins. . . . 
In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform "vanity edits" on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology.
With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing.
But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes.
Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.