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The "Fourth World" Series

Style: Average

Attitude: Take Care

In Brief: Amoral genetic manipulation of human beings and animals within a family community. Origin of intelligent life. Friendship and loyalty in times of social breakdown.

Cover of The "Fourth World" Series

Author: Kate Thompson

Series: Fourth World

Publisher: The Bodley Head

Age Range: Young Teens+

Period: Near Future

Setting: Rural Scotland

Genres:  SciFiThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Christie, the 13-year-old narrator, follows his step-brother Danny and Darling the starling from Ireland to Scotland where Danny's mother Maggie lives on her "Fourth World" homestead. Christie is motivated both by his enthusiasm and admiration for the scientific breakthroughs which have been achieved there, and by his affection and sense of responsibility which sees him follow after Danny in the middle of the night. His point of view represents the common man within the books, sometimes questioning the ethics of Maggie and Bernard's actions, but usually drawn along by the excitement of what they might yet achieve.
  • Once or twice at first Christie is driven by his irrational dislike for Maurice, Danny's father and his step-father. But he does realise that Maurice, stolid and uninspiring, has in fact done the best he could for Danny and for Christie.
  • Danny is the 15-year-old son of Maggie and Maurice, whom Christie's mother has recently married. Maurice took him away from Maggie when he believed that Maggie had tried to kill their son. He gives the appearance of being slightly retarded, very childlike, always cheerful and a bit silly, although with moments of lucidity. Once he arrives in Scotland, Maggie reveals that she had experimented on him before he was born, implanting some dolphin genes in him, which give him the ability to hold his breath and to swim for as long as a dolphin. In the water, breathing oxygen only when he needs to, he is in his element. On land, he is always clumsy and easily over-supplied with oxygen which makes him behave strangely.
  • Tina is a homeless Dublin teenager, living rough, occasionally using drugs, who falls in with Oggy the dog, and travels to Scotland with Christie, Danny and Darling. When they reach the Fourth World, Tina finds herself at home at once. Having had no family for a long time, she takes on the job of bringing up the young talking animals, teaching them to talk and so on.
  • Maggie and Bernard are genetic scientists who have used their time and a large sum of money which Maggie inherited to find the Missing Link, the gene which gives humans the ability to reason and speak. They succeed both in giving some animals this Missing Link gene, thus allowing them to think and speak, and in giving some of their own offspring animal genes, giving them the muscles of a frog, the breathing ability of a dolphin, etc. They are effectively amoral, believing that as long as what they are doing -- which includes experimenting on their own unborn children -- is not for their own benefit, ie for money or honours, then they are justified in doing anything which will advance their understanding. Maggie describes Bernard as her partner, and it clear that they are both professional colleagues and the parents of Sandy and Colin and at least one dead child whom they tried to transform with bird genes. Although they preserve the corpse of this dead child as a reminder of their failures, they are quite willing to go on experimenting.
  • Sandy is Maggie and Bernard's daughter, about Christie's age, whose frog genes gave her tremendous strength but also disfigured her so she can't be seen in public for fear of the attention she would bring to the Fourth World. She resents this, something which is not helped by Bernard's cold attitude to her.
  • Colin is Sandy's younger brother, a precocious 10-year-old whose salmon genes appear to do no more than give his skin a slight tinge, until he survives being buried under an avalanche for several hours without even suffering frostbite. He's technically adept and teams up closely with Bernard. We don't meet them until the start of the second book when they return from an expedition to Africa.

Synopsis:

Maggie & Bernard have discovered the Missing Link gene which gives humans the ability to reason and to speak. They set up a self-sufficient community in the north of Scotland and successfully implant the gene into a number of animals and birds. In addition, they find they can do the reverse: seed their unborn children with animal genes to give them, for example, the agility of a frog or the ability to swim like a dolphin.

Given the uniqueness of this gene, they believe that it was implanted in mankind long ago, possibly by an alien. In an African cave Bernard and Colin discover a picture which leads them to Tibet and the last remaining Yeti. They believe that the Yeti in the mountains, mankind on the plains and the merpeople in the sea, whom Danny befriends, are all the results at different stages of this long-ago intervention.

As the social, economic and military situation in the world worsens around them, Christie and Bernard unwittingly unleash a strange being from a stone which the Yeti gave to Christie. They realise that this being is the alien which originally gave us the Missing Link to enable us to reach a level of technology it could use to return home, or at least to signal. Now we have served its purpose, it intends to remove the gene from all humans by means of a worldwide virus.

Notes:

Style: For all they turn on some far-reaching topics, the books are relatively gentle in style, seeing as they do through the eyes of a growing 13-year-old. There's little grittiness about them as Christie is easily shocked by the failed results of former experiments preserved in Maggie's underground lab, and shies away from discussing the delicate question of how Maggie has introduced the various animal gene into her unborn children. The books are so easy to read that it's worth bearing in mind the potentially serious nature of the subject matter being discussed.

Genetics: The basic tenet of this series is that what sets us humans apart from other animals is an identifiable gene: the Missing Link. Once this gene is isolated, it can be implanted in other animals, giving them the ability to reason and speak. Given that level of scientific sophistication, there would also be nothing to prevent humans from having selected animal genes grafted onto them, giving them the abilities of those animals.

Fourth World: Set in the near future, the books have an faintly apocalyptic air about them. From the first, the developed world is in economic and social turmoil. There are chronic fuel shortages, leading to civil unrest and, later on, to an effective abdication of power by the central government which has granted itself an extensible term of office. This is always the background to the stories, but hardly intrudes. Aside from the initial journey the children make from Ireland to Scotland, where they have to contend with a shortage of public and other transport, the outside world is background noise. The Fourth World is self-sufficient, growing enough food to feed humans and animals, relying on wind, water and solar power for electricity, and to some extent able to defend itself against attack. For Tina, it's the only home she's had. For Sandy, Danny and to some extent Colin, it's their hideaway. Even Christie finds himself going back there after a return visit to Ireland to reassure his parents. In the apocalyptic third book, it becomes the refuge of human intelligence.

Maggie and Bernard: The two scientists and their lifestyle have a compelling attraction about them, especially to Christie, who finds Maggie “beautiful and powerful” (ML p19) and who is drawn to Bernard's single-minded ambition. When Bernard and Colin return from Africa and Christie sees Maggie and Bernard together for the first time, they seem “made for each other” (OH p23). They have created a pleasant and self-sufficient community in which talking and non-talking animals and humans peacefully coexist. Their scientific achievements are impressive, not least since they have worked alone and without the encouragement of the scornful scientific community. However, ethically, they are outside the pale. They test their theories on their own unborn children, effectively reducing them to experimental subjects rather than living autonomous people. We know of one dead newborn child, preserved as a reminder of failure. We don't know how many other abortive attempts there may have been along the way.

Maggie responds to Christie's accusations: “Some say that we're interfering in a process that has always been taken care of by nature; or by God, if you prefer. ... What we've done here may be unethical... One of the reasons I've been able to live with my conscience is that neither I, nor Bernard, has ever looked for any profit from anything we've done” (ML p299). She goes on to point out that their investigations show that someone has done the same thing previously, although this seems something of a non sequitur in terms of the morality of the matter.

Animals and Humans: At the heart of the whole series is the difference between animals and humans. Although this difference is explained away by the presence or absence of a specific gene, Christie, our point-of-view character, spends time musing on whether we might not be better off if we were like the animals, ie carefree, loving and so on. Danny, in particular, has the characteristics usually associated with a dolphin: he enjoys playing and is perpetually cheerful. Later, when Colin loses the Missing Link gene, Christie finds him happier than everyone else: “We know what he has lost but he doesn't. He has no idea what we're doing down here and he doesn't care. The fact is, like it or not, he's happier than any of us.” (O p312). At some point Christie and Bernard discuss whether or not giving intelligence to the animals might not have been a mistake, on the grounds that all we've done with our own intelligence is to start wars and to kill each other. Danny's glib response is to point out that you can't imagine the animals they know planting landmines. It's almost as though the issue is brought up to satisfy would-be critics, but immediately avoided.

Wednesday 18th February 2004