The Killing Gene – blasted out of the airlock

The Killing Gene is published today, blasted out of the airlock: destination unknown. Will it race across the sky like a meteor, leaving a dazzling shower of sparks behind it? Or be immediately sucked out into an infinity of nothingness, just one more piece of literary space junk, lovingly crafted but destined to be lost forever amongst the inky black of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the UK each year? I do not know. But this I can say: it was by far the hardest novel I’ve ever written.

Firstly, because during the research I had to engulf myself in a host of disciplines that were alien to me. Historical linguistics; genetic science; paleo-anthropology; philology and psychology. Not only that, but – ironically – the study of human origins is among the fastest-moving fields of science, right up there with computing and AI. During the project several game-changing discoveries were made which meant I had to perform drastic surgery to my plot halfway through. And to walk a general reader through these disciplines without slabs of crude exposition, to find a story and character arcs that rattle naturally through some of the most fascinating discoveries ever made, tested my poor brain almost to destruction.

Meanwhile, during the writing both domestic and international politics have seen upheavals of a similar pace and earth-shaking magnitude. Like all my books, The Killing Gene is set in the present day and has a strong geopolitical bent. As a manuscript is typically finished at least a year before publication, I had to read the runes as to what today’s world would look like. Would Brexit have happened? What shape will the Middle East be in? Is Trump going to be in the White House, or ‘in jail’? At least Theresa May managed to cling on until publication date by a matter of weeks, thus rendering the stubborn female PM in my Westminster sub-plot (very briefly) contemporaneous.

Harder still, because my subject matter was the human race itself, in all its fallibility and wonder. There are real sensitivities here. In particular, I hope I was able to portray the Ba Aka Forest People of the Congo Basin respectfully, and with veracity. The plot also features an adult going blind, and although I have not experienced this myself, a spell working for the campaigns department of the RNIB means I’ve met many who have. If I’ve fallen short in my treatment of these subject matters, that is solely down to my own deficiency as a writer.

The travel was also gruelling. During the research I journeyed halfway up the Congo, and the next year drove a grand 1,500 mile loop through central Asia, taking in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and skirting the Afghan border – literally a stone’s throw away, across a river shallow enough to wade. There were numerous scrapes and close shaves; I’m lucky I had a steadfast band of companions to hold my hand on these two trips.

The biggest challenge of all was, for the first time as a writer, to take on huge and profound themes: who we are, where we came from, the way that we think and our propensity and predisposition for killing each other.

This is at its heart a concept thriller, and the concept is this: agriculture began 10,000 years ago, while humans are thought to have obtained modern levels of intelligence by at least 70,000 BC. That leaves 60,000 years of a great unknown, of Deep Time. A yawning and unknowable chasm of millennia in which people with our full suite of faculties wandered the Old World… with barely a trace of advancement discernible in the fossil record. The famous painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet in France share an almost identical aesthetic, yet they were created ten millennia apart. “We have discovered nothing,” commented Picasso on visiting Chauvet. Which brings me back to the concept, the question that was the genesis of the novel. Those missing 60,000 years, enough to go from the Great Pyramid to the Mars Rover and back again almost seven times. What the hell were we doing all that time? This is what the archaeologist Colin Renfrew termed the ‘Sapient Paradox,’ which was a working title for the book as I tried to answer the enigma that was its inspiration.

Like all concept thrillers, the burning question is: does it work? And the answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know whether I pulled it off, whether it makes sense, or whether the resultant story is in the immortal phrase of Baldrick, “gobblejook“. All I can say is that I gave it a go. Whether it succeeds is in the mind of the reader.

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