A couple of years ago now I discussed and recommended a book called Living Proof by Kira Peikoff. It was an intriguing book with a deep moral theme and a solid dystopian twist.
Kira has recently published her second book, this one called No Time to Die and true to form, she again engages us in a moral thriller.
Someone is out for blood—Zoe Kincaid’s blood. She’s a 20-year-old trapped in the body of a 14-year-old girl and her DNA could hold the secret of immortality. Could it be the Columbia University researchers who see her as the key to fame and tenure? The shadowy figure, known only as Galileo, who is kidnapping the world’s best researchers? The Justice Department head who seems a little too intent on getting her alone? Or the maniac who just fed a leading scientist to his chimpanzees?
Zoe knows that unlocking the secrets of genome could save her beloved grandfather, a retired physician and former Olympian who grows frailer by the day. Can she trust the rogue physician whose secret lair hides discoveries that might just save her grandfather? Heart-pounding twists just keep coming in Kira Peikoff’s stunning biomedical thriller, NO TIME TO DIE (Kensington Publishing; August 26, 2014.)
Science has barely begun to unlock the secrets written in our DNA. Researchers are relentlessly hunting for the answers to chronic diseases, cancer, rare disorders and the biggest mystery of them all—aging—but at what cost? Bioethicist Peikoff asks the most troubling scientific question of our time in this taut thriller: when does medicine cross the line?
I love the question at the heart of this book – If science can stop the aging process, should it?
Humans have long sought a cure to aging, to cure death and disease really. We crave immortality. What if science had a breakthrough, one that could halt the aging process? Should scientists pursue that breakthrough and cure aging?
The secondary question this book asks is, who is our regulatory system really designed to protect? And how much medical science are Americans missing out on because of the burdens placed on scientists by the FDA and other regulatory agencies? Should consumers have more freedom to try experimental drugs and protocols?
This book challenged me in ways that Living Proof did not. It challenged me to think about issues of aging and death and medicine from an angle that I tend to ignore because of my personal beliefs around death.
Kira holds a somewhat different set of beliefs on this topic and she was kind enough to drop by and shed some light on them, and on what drew her to this story.
NO TIME TO DIE focuses on a 20 year-old woman who stopped aging at 14 years-old – where did you get this idea?
A few years back, I saw a documentary on Discovery Health about a young woman who had inexplicably stopped aging. She was almost 20 years old but had stayed frozen as a toddler her whole life, baffling doctors and scientists alike. The case caught my attention because I’ve always been interested in medical mysteries, and like many people, I’m also fixated on the promise of eternal youth. Yet staying young forever, as welcome as it might be, could also be a curse. I decided to explore it further in a novel, but I didn’t want my protagonist stuck as a toddler without much mental or emotional capacity. So I decided to trap her in the worst possible page for maximum drama and frustration. What could be worse than 14?
What is Syndrome X?
Syndrome X is the name researchers have given to this phenomenon of total stunted development. To date, at least 6 people have been identified.
Why is our culture so interested in defying aging?
I think it probably derives from our collective fear of death. It’s very painful to face down our own mortality and to grasp how temporary our lives are. Religion may provide people with some measure of comfort, but there remains no scientific consensus on an afterlife. So we’re forced to accept that all we really have is the here and now. Defying aging would be the ultimate way to prolong our time and avoid oblivion.
Do you think scientists will find a cure for aging?
Some leading researchers believe the end of aging is within reach–perhaps in the next century. One respected scientist, Aubrey de Gray, thinks that the first person who will live to age 1,000 is already alive now.
What are some of the benefits of not aging?
On an individual level, endless time–time to spend with family and friends, time to pursue infinite knowledge, passions, careers, hobbies, etc. No longer having to worry about outliving your parents or grandparents. Knowing generations of your own descendants. Living in the prime of life without breaking down physically after 70 or so years.
On a societal level, much less spending on health care, since the diseases of aging (cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s) would be greatly reduced. A more robust economy, thanks to workers who retain full strength and energy long past retirement age.
What would be some of the negative results of not aging and becoming almost immortal?
Individually–people might suffer from a kind of idle purposelessness if they are living so long that there’s no point in “seizing the day” or making the most of life. They might start taking their time for granted and losing their ambition. But of course, you’d still have to support yourself with food, shelter, etc. And you could still get hit by a bus and die, or get sick. It’s very different from actual immortality.
Societally–we would have to deal with how to avoid overpopulation. People would have to have fewer children, or maybe skip generations before having children. We’d have to figure out how to make existing resources and infrastructure support the growing population. Social security would end. I don’t know if people would retire anymore.
You’re studying Bioethics at Columbia University, how did you choose bioethics?
I’ve long been interested in the intersection of cutting-edge biology, politics, and philosophy. Specifically, in the ways that exciting new advancements stand to improve human health, but are also raising unprecedented moral dilemmas. Our very definitions of life and death are being challenged by the latest innovations. It’s a thrilling field to study because it’s constantly evolving, and no one has all the answers yet.
Your book explores a secret network of scientists – why is it important to regulate what happens in science labs?
This is a controversial issue. On one side, you have people asserting that government regulation is necessary to protect vulnerable human subjects from exploitation by unethical researchers–which sadly happened a great deal in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before notions of patient autonomy and informed consent were popularized. On the other side, you have researchers who now feel stifled by the layers of bureaucracy, like IRBs, ethics committees, and the FDA, that they need to bypass to carry out their studies. Many people, including me, are concerned that these protections have been taken too far and actually hurt more than they help, by holding back and even dis-incentivizing innovations that could save lives. In my book, the best and brightest researchers have become so frustrated with the slowness and inefficiency of the system that they form their own secret community to speed up progress. I think it’s possible for a group of researchers to self-regulate and still treat human subjects 100% ethically.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading NO TIME TO DIE?
First and foremost, that they will be transported on a thrilling and satisfying journey with characters they’ve become invested in. Then: that they’ll possibly think about their own positions on the controversial subjects the book raises, and finally that they will be shocked by the big twist ending.
KIRA PEIKOFF is a writer based in New York City. She graduated with high honors from New York University in 2007 with a degree in journalism, after four years of various reporting internships: covering street crime for The Daily News, writing about Capitol Hill for The Orange County Register in Washington, D.C., reporting on business and technology for Newsday, and researching feature stories for New York magazine. After completing her first book, Living Proof, Peikoff worked for several years in the editorial departments at two New York publishing houses, which gave her an invaluable inside look at the publishing process and the rapidly changing industry. Peikoff is working on her third thriller, freelancing for a variety of major media outlets, and attending Columbia University’s Master of Science program in Bioethics.
Me again – I think No Time to Die definitely raises some interesting ethical questions around personal responsibility and autonomy vs government oversight and regulation. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.