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Popular science, current affairs, climate and ecology, palaeontology, travel, ethics… when a book defies (or straddles) this many genres, I have to imagine how the librarian would place it. (The bookseller would likely leave it at non-fiction.) So I am going with ‘chronotravelogue’ foremost, but noting the strong claims made by a science journalist’s exploration of ethics (and not only of applied genetics) and the musings on human nature that, notably, often decentre humans while acknowledging our godlike status as movers and shakers in the contemporary world, our reach stretching across space and time in hindsight, mythic vision and futuristic fantasy—and our clumsy clay.
We journey from Prometheus to Frankenstein in the first two paras of the intro. The next page goes to Jurassic Park! But this is not a book that yields to cliché at all. As the narrative continues to Project Lazarus, a bid to revive the Australian gastric-brooding frog (which spawned young from its stomach and out through its mouth) that died out from fungal disease, I am compelled to that rare line in a book review: It is very well-written—the simplest yet profoundest praise any keen reader knows. The title proves as fascinating for its narrative as its wealth of startling, scary and heartening information.
Torill Kornfeldt, who is Swedish, travels the world to interview a new generation of bioengineers and technological pioneers who hope to achieve nothing less than the Re-origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals. Amazingly, she brings us right along, immersing us in the spirit of each place in the span of a few sentences—did I mention ‘gifted writer’? —so I shiver and gawk at permafrosted Siberian caverns holding mammoth bodies (and body parts), so immersed in the local lives and legends that I must shake myself when we return to the lab or relocate to San Diego. Yet the narrative remains tightly directional. Also, like any good travel writer, Kornfeldt stays conscious of how much the viewer sees what they want—and how much it varies. Where the tourist sees ‘scenic beauty’, a scientist laments a wasteland of lost wilderness, a cemetery.
The book necessarily engages with history and prehistory, but detours to explore cultures, feminism and sexism, cocks a snook at ageism—like the best kind of tourist. Critically, it envisions places as they are, as they have been and as they might be—all equally vivid word-paintings. Ask yourself, dear travelling reader, will this place be irrevocably changed next you arrive? Will Siberia shake as mammoths walk the earth soon? Will Sweden bellow with aurochs again? Will American national parks be clouded by million-strong flocks of the passenger pigeon that ‘visitors’ literally ate to extinction, their droppings like dark snowfall, their feet and feathers shaking the trees better than any rejuvenating forest fire? Don’t you already feel the urge to quickly see the “before” right now, before the “after” comes? Except “after” might be “even before”—or not. (That’s the debate at the heart of the book, the tension between conservationists and revivalists—can the extinct be truly the same species if returned to a changed world, and is tweaking an existing species de-extinction enough or the creation of altogether a new beast-monster?)
The one stumbling block to readers came from the editor, not the author—the footnotes, guiding to a companion website and other resources to extend the narrative, and the plates clustered in the centre folds are orphaned by a lack of superscripts and discovered too late in our sojourn.
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