"A Neanderthal baby was going to be born and there was nothing I could to stop it. The very rules of natural selection, the rules of nature, would be broken."
The Neanderthal's Aunt by Gina DeMarco
remains my favorite novel six years after its debut. The themes are even more relevant today, with coronavirus threatening to become another pandemic like the influenza of 1918, and with a new wave of racism, the dehumanization of others, making headlines. DeMarco reminds us we are human, and we are one, no matter what our lineage, no matter what differences show up in our DNA. For all the satire, snark, and slapstick hilarity, a profound sense of decency and compassion anchor this story.
Sara, a biologist, is about to become the aunt of a Neanderthal baby. Or so her sister Liz says. Scientists have found a way to recreate the long-extinct species from its DNA sequence and Liz, recently widowed, vulnerable, and bereft, has volunteered to adopt and raise the first experimental Neanderthal baby. Sara fears it’s a scam and Liz will be hurt. When the paparazzi come around, the project jeopardizes Sara's reputation, destroys her privacy, and takes over her life. But worse things than that happen. Funny things, too.
In this age of the internet, every comment we make leaves a trace. Sara knows all too well how every silly thing you say, particularly if it is read by many thousands of people, has the possibility of creating all kinds of ripples, coursing through the universe, causing all kinds of things to happen in people's lives that no one ever intended.
If you doubt that, this story may change your mind. The timing, the sequences of events, the convergence of events: it's positively Shakesperian, the way "Romeo and Juliet" explodes from an exquisite sense of timing. If this, then that. Every event matters. Every thread, every character--the prisoner in the transport van, the doorman, the dead husband, the priest, the eccentric scientists, the birds, the media frenzy--all are crucial.
Five years after this book was published, this happened:
Flocks of Dead Birds Randomly Fall From Sky in Australia: A Sign of End-of-Days?
By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz July 21, 2019 , 4:36 pm
Dying corellas found by students at One Tree Hill Primary School
WARNING - Distressing Content
Birds, Babies, Jurassic Park science, and oh, the humanity!
Part of this story’s appeal for me is that an ancient race of people has gone extinct, and in spite of modern scientists studying fossil remains and archeological sites, we still don’t know what happened--or "how human" the Neanderthals may have been. A scene where Sara visits a Neanderthal exhibit in a museum is poignant and riveting.
I could not look at the Neanderthal and see him as an animal, as something different than fully human. The very idea, of being human but not fully human, that was impossible. I saw him as us. I had finally opened my eyes and was face to face with the enormity it. And then, like an exhausted child, I fell to my knees and began sobbing in the Hall of Human Origins.
A comedy of errors, a cautionary tale
Before you hate on Sara for her snark, consider her sense of decency. Lines like these:
Scientists, trying to understand a disease or do something that they told themselves was really important, have in the past convinced themselves that someone was an "other."
We cannot call someone an "other," define them as not-quite-human just because they look a little different than us.
There aren't different types of humans. There aren't regular humans and Neanderthal humans. There are just humans.
Bring on the hilarity!
“I wondered how Liz’s dinner parties would go if everyone else was eating organic barley and seitan pilaf and a Neanderthal child was at the table tucking into a deer’s liver. They might get jealous.
This would be a depressing read if not for DeMarco's humor.
Sara is as comically inept at dating as she is competent as a scientist. Normally I don't laugh at slapstick, but in this novel, it works because we know real people think, say, and do stupid things even when they’re as brilliant as Sara. Or is it especially the high-IQs who blunder along like Sara does, book-smart and socially inept? You might say she should have known better, especially with the hot peppers, but a friend my age--who has a degree in biology!--ended up in E.R. with blistered hands from failing to wear gloves while cutting peppers. So. Believable. Laugh all you like, guiltily or not. If you’re one of the types of people skewered in the writing (and that includes me with my food allergies), you might not be as entertained as I was.
The baby shower scene satirizes the anti-vax moms, but it also satirizes food allergies, and I know all too well how legitimate those are, just as too many parents know all too well how real vaccination dangers can be. There's also the wince-and-cringe aspect of the heroine being an irresponsible dog owner. I'm remembering now why someone said this novel is barely worth two stars. I, however, love everything else about it so much, I stick with my 5-star rave.
So does Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated writer, scientist, educator, and critic. If you don't trust my judgment--if you listen instead to the one-star bandits who denounce books like this one--you might trust Amy's. Check out her book review website ScienceThrillers.com, her publishing company ScienceThrillers Media, and her own #sciencethriller, #scifi as #scithri, novels. You can read her review at goodreads. Here's an excerpt:
Loosely, it’s the story of one year in the life of Dr. Sara Nicoletta, a Boston-dwelling PhD scientist who is a molecular biologist and expert on viruses. During this time, her own somewhat pathetic life is overshadowed by the public adventures of her recently widowed, New York socialite sister who has announced that she is going to be the mother of a Neanderthal baby.
Hilarity, with a heavy dose of snark, follows. The story encompasses “bird storms” (dead flocks falling out of the sky), a jealous chimpanzee, how to cook placenta, an escaped convict, a man’s belt on Craigslist, handheld RNA sequencers, emails from a dead man, glow-in-the-dark dogs, artificial chromosomes, cytokine storms, disco dancing at a genomics conference, and the funniest baby shower you’ve never been to.
No, I'm not telling you what the chimpanzee has to do with this.
Gina DeMarco is a pen name. The author has a doctorate degree in biology, works in the field of DNA sequencing, and keeps her real identity a secret. In this age of social media and self-aggrandizing, I find that refreshing, admirable and bold. And frustrating: where do I sign up for the fan club? I did tag her in a Tweet, in which I quoted Sam Bellotto Jr defining Hard Science Fiction for authors submitting to his ezine. "The story must be compelling and the science must be integral to the story”--that definitely fits The Neanderthal's Aunt. DeMarco retweeted with the comment, “It would be hard to make up something more compelling than a lot of what is real now, especially in synthetic biology."
DeMarco isn't sensationalizing anything. I feel the fictional Sara's frustration over "the media over-hyping junk science. This distracted from real science and blurred the lines between fact and fiction in the public's consciousness."
Conspiracy theories abounded, about the monopoly of big pharma, the toxins poisoning Johns' nervous system, the medical community's denial of treatments that they KNOW work, just to preserve their own status quo. And the scientists, often in quotes: "scientists", were alternatively mindless slaves to the conspirators, utter failures, or omniscient and omnipotent: people who could have cured the disease if they wanted to but who still chose to let people die for some self-serving reason or another, the Wizard of Oz refusing Dorothy a ride home in his balloon for no reason at all.
Theo, the mad scientist, has a perfectly reasonable explanation for cloning a race that went extinct. “We have chosen to resurrect the Neanderthal person ... simply because we can,” he explains.
Sara wryly thinks, “Hanlon’s razor tells us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Along with a lot of unwanted media attention surrounding the clone, Sara faces pressure to track the source of a mysterious wave of bird deaths. The Panola virus depicted in this novel "is completely fictional," DeMarco writes, but that sort of thing happened with the catastrophic Spanish flu pandemic that swept across the globe in 1918 and killed seventy-five million people. It could happen again with the coronavirus, but this is the 21st Century, and science has come a long way since 1918. Sign me up for that new vaccination scientists are rushing to come up with.
Sara’s observations ring all too true for business as well as science and humanity. “The world I lived in was so full of anxiety, being afraid someone would publish your findings before you or that someone would point out a mistake in your calculations. Theo wasn't afraid of anything. I didn't know if that was good, but it sure was something.”
Here is the review I wrote for Perihelion Science Fiction:
Bringing Back Baby
EVEN IF I DIDN’T LOVE NEANDERTHALS, genetics, anthropology and mad scientists, I’d love “The Neanderthal’s Aunt,” by Gina DeMarco. The novel may or may not fall short of strict definitions of “hard” science fiction, but the author delivers enough science-gone-wrong to justify her place in the annals of witty, well-written, character-driven science fiction with a lesson in hubris.
Gina DeMarco is only a pen name. The author has a doctorate degree in biology, works in the field of DNA sequencing, and keeps her real identity a secret. In this age of social media and self-aggrandizing, I find that so refreshing, admirable and bold, I just had to stalk her via Twitter. Well, I stalked her alias. Without resorting to a scary German accent and threats--ve have vays to make you tweet--I got her to talk. First, I praised her novel, quite sincerely. Then I called her attention to a tweet I’d posted from the 12-Mar-2014 update of “Perihelion:” an explanation of “hard” science fiction as “honking good stories served up with a strong dose of real science. The story must be compelling and the science must be integral to the story.”
“It would be hard to make up something more compelling than a lot of what is real now, especially in synthetic biology,” DeMarco tweeted back. Indeed, The Neanderthal’s Aunt is proof of that.
First, let’s get the synopsis out of the way. Sara, a level-headed biologist, is about to become the aunt of a Neanderthal baby. Or so her sister Liz says. Scientists have found a way to recreate the long-extinct species from its DNA sequence and Liz, a recently widowed, yoga-loving socialite, has volunteered to adopt and raise the first experimental Neanderthal baby. Sara fears it’s a scam and Liz will be hurt. When the paparazzi come around, Sara's connection to the project jeopardizes her reputation as a serious researcher, destroys her privacy, and takes over her life. But worse things than that happen.
Funny things, too. The story is so engaging because Sara is as comically inept at dating as she is competent as a scientist. None of the ridiculous scenes come across as contrived. The best humor is funny precisely because we know real people think, say, and do stupid things even when they’re as brilliant as Sara. Or is it especially the smart people who blunder along like Sara does?
Let me just say I never knew hot peppers could have me laughing out loud, trying not to awaken my sleeping husband even as I secretly hoped to rouse him. If you guessed I was reading late into the night because I couldn’t put the book down, you guessed right.
The novel also had me near tears (other reviewers confess they did weep), but you’ll have to read the book yourself to see why. Part of this story’s appeal for me is that an ancient race, a great people, have gone extinct, and in spite of modern scientists studying fossil remains and archeological sites, we still don’t know what happened or how human the Neanderthals may have been. Jurassic Park has become a buzzword for our inner mad scientist wanting to clone old DNA and bring back extinct creatures, and this novel tackles the scary-sad possibilities, along with a good dose of humor.
Liz tries to defend the idea of being a mother to a Neanderthal. “This,” Sara narrates, “was an idea she kept bringing up in the beginning, the idea that modern humans caused the Neanderthal’s extinction, and we owed it to them to bring them back to undo our actions.”
Liz: “The whole race is extinct because we drove them to extinction. We owe it to them. To undo what we did in the past.”
Sara: “We don’t know that humans made the Neanderthals extinct.”
Liz: “Well of course we did.”
Theo, the mad scientist, has a perfectly reasonable explanation for cloning a race that went extinct. “We have chosen to
resurrect the Neanderthal person ... simply because we can,” he explains.
Sara wryly thinks, “Hanlon’s razor tells us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Along with a lot of unwanted media attention surrounding the clone, Sara faces pressure to track the source of a mysterious wave of bird deaths.
Somehow, DeMarco manages to inject humor even in a scene that ranks with Hitchcock for scary + birds + psycho guy on the loose.
Theo is only one of many complex, vivid, memorable, and authentic characters in this story. Angus, another scientist vying for Sara’s attentions (and working with her on sequencing the DNA of all those dead birds), is painfully real and believable.
Sara’s pragmatic point of view shines at the baby shower, attended by an anti-vaccination crowd of quasi-science-minded mothers. Pampered and well off, they embrace conspiracy theories about the monopoly of big pharma, toxins poisoning their allergy-afflicted children, the medical community’s denial of holistic treatments, the government’s ... well, you know the crowd. Their scientific concerns come with a lot of New Age, trendy nonsense, which Sara endures without sneering aloud. “Designer clothes, designer pets. Why not genetically modified designer babies?” she wonders.
The rich, idealistic women speak of a new trend (this one, I’m sorry to say, is not a fiction) of human mothers eating the placenta of their newborns. “The mothers of all non-human mammals eat their placentas because they’re hungry and they do not want the smell of afterbirth to attract a predator to eat their babies,” Sara narrates. “So, if you happen to give birth while you are out alone on safari, you are in the proximity of a pride of lions, and your broken-down Range Rover has neither a loaded gun nor a cooler full of food, nor doors, then I would say that eating your placenta is certainly a good idea.” Amen.
Page after page, DeMarco never fails to infuse humor into her scientific observations. I laughed out loud at this one, though it’s possible men won’t see why: “Millions of years of evolutionary selection are supposed to have left women wanting to be protected and cared for, to be built a home, and presented with a freshly killed beast, and then cuddled in the dark.”
One of the most endearing characters is Liz's dearly departed husband John. Through flashbacks we see how he and Liz meet and why his devotion to her is the stuff of legend. For me it's as simple as this: for real, he finds Liz's notoriouly lame jokes funny. He's so thoughtful and so real. And fond of junk food. If you find nothing else to like about Sara, you might lover her for sneaking his favorite foods to him despite Liz banning them in a desperate ploy to prolong his life.
The most minor of characters have great lines--Sara's mother; her brother, and the awesome doorman--
Hank had stood guard in Iraq during the war, against some people that made even the most aggressive of paparazzi seem effete by comparison. They were completely outclassed.
He protected all of us. He was a guard, in the same way that I was a scientist and Luka was a priest. It was more than what he did. It was who he was.
Plot spoilers keep me from excerpting some of DeMarco’s memorable lines about the Neanderthal baby whose imminent arrival drives the narrative. I’ll include a few from the opening chapters:
“Evolution is not an invisible rope pulling us forward. A giraffe does not have a long neck so that he can reach the leaves on the trees. He reaches the leaves on the tree because he has a long neck ... The present exists because of the past. And that is where the beauty of Darwin’s theory lies, in its randomness, in its luck.”
She quotes Saint Augustine, who “warned against preaching idiocy to Pagans in 415 AD ... if you tell people that they have to believe in things that they know are not true and that do not matter then they will never believe you when you tell them things that are true and that do matter.”
Sara and Liz have a brother who’s a priest, which serves to add more tension to the ethical dilemma of using clones and surrogates to revive an extinct race. His views are more traditional than Sara’s. “The Vatican even stated in 1950 that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Catholicism are compatible,” she argues. “Then, in 1996, Pope John Paul said that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. Evolution is, of course, taught in biology classes at Catholic schools.” That, sadly, is more than can be said of too many public schools.
Along with science and the ethical dilemmas that come with it, DeMarco delivers a romance angle, which comes as a nice surprise, considering how many mishaps this socially challenged woman scientist has suffered (oh, so comically!) until now. Naturally, even Sara’s most romantic moments are filled with the majesty of science. “I found Vega, the brightest of the three stars that formed the summer triangle. How many people, I wondered, had sat wrapped in someone else’s arms looking up at Vega? All of them, I hoped. It seemed like such a basic human activity, so deeply pleasant.”
In all, The Neaderthal’s Aunt is more than a lab experiment driven by good intentions, plagued with unexpected consequences, proof of the astonishing power of microorganisms. It’s surprisingly good fiction that fills a growing demand for #women in science, as the #hashtags at Twitter would have us know. It also satisfies my own demand for riveting, thoughtful, relevant science issues packaged in a story that keeps me reading to the very end. I look forward to more from this author, who is as funny and smart as A.R. Taylor (see “Sex, Rain and Cold Fusion,” review, 12-Jan-2014). Whether DeMarco and Taylor write fictionalized science, or science fiction with humor and poignant insights, I don’t care. I just want more where this came from. I’d like to see more from the cover artist, too, whoever ZMC may be. (“The Neanderthal’s Aunt,” Gina DeMarco, Amazon) —Carol Kean April 2014
Some of my Kindle highlights:
this is the age of the internet, where every silly thing you say can leave a trace. And if you search hard enough you can still find some old references to the original article.
Socialites at the Baby Shower
all dressed in colorful spring party dresses that went down to their ankles. It was the fashion that year to look like you had gotten tangled up in a parachute.
Designer clothes, designer pets. Why not genetically modified designer babies?
I was in the room when the scientist in charge of the Neanderthal sequencing project, Svante Paabo, announced at a conference that they had finished sequencing the first version of the Neanderthal genome. It had been a lot harder than Theo made it sound, a monumental task.
"...he explained the whole thing to us."
"No. He didn't really. I don't know how a Neanderthal is made. He just said stuff.
Techniques in biology are fussier than cakes. They succeed or fail by margins of nanograms. How much DNA is in the tube relative to the enzymes? It has to be a certain amount, at a certain temperature, and we sometimes do not even know why.
This dialogue nails it:
"I know Liz is just a flakey socialite to most people, but she's my sister. She is really looking forward to this. I don't want her getting hurt."
"You're so nice," Theo said, for no reason at all.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"To your sister. And people."
"Everyone's nice," I said.
"No, they're not."
Thank you for reading!
And thank you @owasco for buying this book based on my recommendation, at a time when you're downsizing, donating or selling your worldly goods before moving to a new home. I hope you love it even half as much as I do.