Are you ready for a new you this New Year? Dan Wells gives us an Extreme Makeover in this stand alone novel. The author of the John Wayne Cleaver, Partials and Mirador series maintains his thrilling sci-fi themes in this latest book, with a serious twist. The book is a commentary both on our obsession with changing our appearance as well as the corporations that prey on these desires. You won’t be the same after taking an imaginary glimpse into what could happen if we let our temptations become reality.
The head chemist at NewYew, Lyle Fontanelle, accidentally discovers a formula that improves skin by changing its DNA. “The plasmids in the lotion were designed to unroll and mimic DNA long enough to rewrite portions of themselves onto the host DNA.” In effect, the plasmids in the lotion turn the person using it into a new person, with rewritten DNA. While his company is eager to skirt around FDA approval to unleash ReBirth, this new beauty product, Lyle wishes he could, instead, get his lotion into the hands of people who really need it for health. He hands it off to a Dr Kuvam who is willing to try the lotion on his cancer patients without it being approved. Ibis, a competitor beauty care company, wants to steal the formula to market as their own. But none of these contenders anticipates what will happen with ReBirth’s widespread use.
NewYew confines (imprisons) a group who tested samples of ReBirth after they discover the unintended consequences: cloning. These test patients not only become new, they become clones of Lyle and clones of others who have touched the lotion. This ups the ante. Now, NewYew and Ibis both want to market model people the lotion turns users into and the government wants ReBirth for espionage. The imprisoned test participants have not only an extreme makeover, but want an extreme takeover; they want revenge against NewYew.
The premise itself promises drama but Dan Wells delivers the drama with short, pithy chapters each headed with the time of day, location and countdown “THE END OF THE WORLD” (in caps). There’s suspense even before we read a sentence! The content of the chapters is chock full of action. The characters make split-second, game-changing decisions in almost every chapter. For example, when Ibis gets caught spying for info on ReBirth, the CEO of NewYew decides, “find him… I want his head of my desk by morning.” Susan, one of the prisoners, executes her plan for escape. She “shoved the keys in the ignition, the car roared to life, and she tore out of the driveway like the fires of hell were behind her.” With lots of disposal income, state-of-the-art equipment, smarts and power, Dan Wells provides his characters the means for an action-packed, well-thought-out, intricate plot.
One of the biggest surprises is that the person who changes the most is one whom ReBirth never changes: its inventor, Lyle. He takes a sample, but it clones him into himself. However, he transforms from a spineless, direction-less scientist into someone who learns to act with love. When he’s kidnapped by Ibis to become their scientist, they provide him a lab. “He had everything he could possibly need, but nothing that he actually wanted.” He wants to use his discovery for good, but doesn’t know how. Kuvam proves a mistake. Ibis manipulates him. He doesn’t know how to move forward toward something good, only how to escape what might kill him. Change begins when he has to confront legions of clone Lyles. “All he had left was a face shared by a hundred thousand others. It wasn’t much of an identity, but it was his. In a world where so many people had lost themselves, he’d kept himself… and he’d drawn some kind of strength from that.” Later, he meets Lilly, another character who isn’t cloned, and finds the strength to change the course of human history by his love for her. He moves the plot along with his questions about his own identity, drawing us into the meaning of the novel through his own story.
Dan Wells says in the acknowledgements that “I tried to focus on… the idea that nobody is unique, and that doppelgangers appear everywhere, and that certain ideas and actions and names, and even people, will repeat themselves endlessly throughout our lives.” Perhaps the book is, in the end, a colossal irony. Perhaps, an Extreme Makeover happens from the inside out, in little, distinguishing ways, in individual stories of merit hidden within the high drama of culture wars and corporate hijinks. Now that’s motivation for a New Year’s resolution.