Jan Issaye Berkhout
Inkwater Press, 2014
A so-called “maverick geneticist,” a blood-chilling term suggesting a certain level of cartoon villainy, has recently declared his intention of growing a woolly mammoth. Such a story paws at our sense of wonder as well as our species’ egotism in the face of the natural world. It makes for a great headline, a great story.
Cloning isn’t a new trope for science fiction. However, in our era, DNA has risen to prominence not just scientifically but socially changing the nature of the sci-fi trope. Enter Jan Issaye Berkhout and his novel of maverick geneticists resurrecting not woolly mammoths but the Ancient Egyptian icon King Tut. Set in the near future, The Tut Clone Contracts takes readers on an entertaining fantasy adventure.
In the first section we encounter the premise, “You want to clone a pharoh? And document his life in Chicago forever after?” as well as the science and business that goes along with it. The science is certainly believable enough given Berkhout’s background, but it’s the creation of the company to not just develop the clone DNA but to find birth surrogates that really makes this story creepy (for these embryos and thus the clones are property, not people) and engaging. While the novel spins out into the fantastical from its initial realist grounding as it follows the growth of the Tut clones, the moral lapse or, rather, absence in the storytelling nags at the reader leaving a sense of profoundly wasted opportunity.
That is not to say there aren’t some wonderfully sinister moments. For example, early on there’s the reactionary proselytizer Brenda Clothman. We are told repeated just how aggressively pro-fertility Clothman is and see it when she snaps back at those who might think there is an overpopulation problem: “That’s nonsense. The Chinese one-child policy was because socialist central planning couldn’t finance enough jobs for all the Chinese youngsters in the pipeline. Once they got rid of central planning it turned out they had too few people, not too many. And we have to make up for all the babies that are aborted in this country too. You can’t have too many babies. People aren’t a burden to Gaia, they’re an asset. There should be ten fertility clinics for every one we have now.” An alternative facts zealot like Clothman is just one example of the kinds of characters that orbit the Tut clones giving the novel dark tensions.
The Tut clones become themselves while still being Tutankhaten in a future just as chaotic, bizarre and real as our present day. Eventually, the Tut clones come together and re-establish the dynastic rule in Egypt through a series of circuitous adventures. There is a zaniness to this novel that doves tails nicely with its more action-packed parts.
Berkhout has a real gift for weaving shared daily banalities with truly imaginative scenarios. However, he could do with honing a more descriptive style to avoid the somewhat heavy exposition that can cause the story to drag. Reading The Tut Clone Contracts is to be immersed in a world that is both viscerally strange and uncannily common, which is something the best sci-fi or speculative fiction works accomplish.
Jan Issaye Berkhout was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in New York, Chicago, and the Netherlands. He has a PhD in biology from the University of Chicago. Dr. Berkhout is currently director of the graduate program in human engineering at the University of South Dakota. He has worked as an advisor for several government and military agencies. The Tut Clone Contracts is his first novel. A sequel is in preparation.