Last month, The Hollywood Reporter announced a movie deal for a novel called Change Agent, a sci-fi thriller about genetic engineering that was released today. If everything goes right, Change Agent could be a must-see sci-fi blockbuster along the lines of Minority Report, blending clever philosophizing with non-stop action. It's about an Interpol agent who's given the face and body of a wanted criminal, through rogue gene editing that could make the very concept of individual identity obsolete. There's a weird-yet-plausible near-future setting, a twisty plot, and a genuinely creepy villain. But as a novel, I would only touch it again under threat of bodily harm.
Written by Daemon author Daniel Suarez, Change Agent is supposed to be a workmanlike beach read that presents big ideas through a fast-paced plot. It's set in 2045, in a world where gene therapy and designer babies are commonplace. Protagonist Kenneth Durand is one of the people in charge of shutting down black market clinics that offer unauthorized improvements like super-strength or intelligence, instead of fixes for genetic diseases. After Durand agrees to look for a gene therapy criminal kingpin named Marcus Wyckes, he's attacked by an unknown, syringe-wielding assailant. When he wakes from a coma five weeks later, he learns that Wyckes can change living humans as well as embryos, and he's turned Durand into his doppelgänger — hoping to fake his own death by getting Durand killed.
But Suarez isn't just taking on one big idea, he's meticulously building a world, complete with new cryptocurrencies, crowdsourced surveillance methods, and other moderately interesting extrapolations of present-day technology. This often means dragging the action to a standstill to prove he's done his homework. Change Agent fixates on the minutiae of payment processing, security authentication, and display technology with more verve than action sequences or character development. If Daniel Suarez had written Marathon Man, it would be a novel about choosing the best long-distance running attire. Meanwhile, the book’s anemic, redundant prose ruins tense moments. When a character names a villain while quaking in terror, the narrative assures us that “the man was greatly feared” a paragraph later.
Sci-fi novels and techno-thrillers often go heavy on exposition. But it works best when used to describe something that's difficult to imagine, like a far-flung space station, or thematically important, like Tom Clancy’s fetishized military tech. Beyond the extreme genetic modification, Change Agent is future-by-numbers, although it offers a few evocative ideas — like drug dealers who 3D-print custom narcotics from formulae tattooed on junkies’ arms, or a biomechanical shark used for international smuggling. I know this sounds cool, but you’ll only reach it after reading about characters taking endless minor actions on their “LFP glasses,” which is as irritating as an author appending “with a smartphone” to every digital interaction in a contemporary novel.
Change Agent starts to hit its stride in the last third of the book, when advanced genetic engineering comes to the forefront. Its vision of the future is never mind-blowing, but it's chilling and tragic when Durand sees a sociopathic endpoint for designer babies: children with uncanny adult intelligence on one hand, malformed experiments and pitiless child soldiers on the other. The book's strangest technical leap also gives us its most effective antagonist, a lonely killer with apocalyptic ambitions and genes that are literally hostile to human life. He’s the kind of over-the-top character that a good actor could ham to perfection, even if Suarez’s prose doesn’t do him justice.
Likewise, a good screenwriter could make more of the novel’s philosophical dilemmas. Is there really an ideal, “natural” baseline that people can genetically enhance themselves to meet, without sliding into post-humanism? What would individual identity mean if people could change their DNA (and, alongside it, nearly every aspect of their bodies) at will? It’s a twist on Gattaca’s vision of genetic perfection, with less pathos but more mecha-sharks.
Change Agent isn’t frustrating in spite of its good ideas, but because of them. It’s an interesting novel that gets in its own way far too often, and at a time when so many books deliver good ideas alongside good writing, there’s no excuse for its shortcomings. Reading it feels like hearing a pedantic high schooler describe a movie: you can get a sense of why it’s cool, but you should probably just wait to see the film yourself.