Dan Wells explores the dark side of genetic engineering in Extreme Makeover, a satirical science-fiction novel that is equal parts terrifying and hilarious. The protagonist, Lyle Fontanelle, is chief scientist for NewYew cosmetics company. Using not-exactly-legal genetic technology, Lyle develops ReBirth, the ultimate beauty product. But he soon discovers that ReBirth does much more than smooth out wrinkles—it overwrites DNA, turning one person into an exact physical copy of another.
NewYew starts selling the DNA of perfect physical specimens. After all, with the body of a model or athlete, there would be no need for make-up, dieting or health club memberships. But Lyle would like to see his breakthrough put to better use than making people more attractive. He sneaks a sample to a New Age doctor who uses ReBirth to cure a woman of cancer by making her a clone of her healthy daughter. Then the world’s governments recognize the lotion’s potential as a tool of espionage.
We learn on the first page that the world will end in 267 days. The exact means by which this will occur are not immediately clear, but the world quickly descends into chaos as widespread cloning—both intentional an inadvertent—makes it impossible to really know who anyone is.
Despite the dystopic storyline, this is a funny book. As the world collapses, Lyle seeks help from the United Nations, which results in ridiculous debates that are entirely unhelpful. All of the delegates are referred to by the name of their country—Mexico, China, Russia, etc.—without any expression of individuality; this continues even after their adventures carry them out of the UN and would be expected to become unique characters. It is as if a bureaucrat can never truly be human.
Dan Wells excels at gallows humor, particularly in his bestselling John Wayne Cleaver series, which includes titles like I Am Not a Serial Killer (2009) and I Don’t Want to Kill You (2011). He knows how to blend the serious with the silly without collapsing into farce.
On a more serious note, Extreme Makeover expresses pessimism that humanity can responsibly wield great power. All of the various factions seek to control ReBirth because they don’t trust anyone else to control it, yet all are equally irresponsible in its use. As ReBirth causes more and more problems, the characters tragically look to ReBirth to solve them. This is simultaneously idiotic and completely understandable—like all human folly.