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Reviews of The Genius factory

New York Times

""ebullient new contribution to the realm of weird-science nonfiction...perfectly pitched - blithe, smart, skeptical, yet entranced by its subject"

--Janet Maslin

Washington Post

"Plotz is an engaging and confident storyteller -- and he has a terrific yarn to tell."


David Plotz's history of the notorious Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, "The Genius Factory," could have been a pure romp. The characters are too larger-than-life, the events depicted too ridiculous not to be nonfiction: William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, jacking off to save the world from mediocrity? It doesn't get better than that. Or, Plotz could have confined himself to something more sobering. At the heart of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank's appeal was founder Robert Graham's belief that if smart people didn't make more babies, the world would be overcome by the dumb and infirm. His proposal to solve this problem, by stocking his bank with sperm from carefully selected geniuses, was nutty eugenic racism, but the day isn't far off when parents will be able to specify exactly what genes they do or don't want. Working out the law and ethics to handle such a future will be a gnarly challenge, and that alone provides grist enough for a book. But Plotz one-ups both approaches, and pulls off the tricky feat of taking readers on a trip both serious and silly. So we get hilarity, and Hitler. We get a brief history of eugenics, and we get Plotz himself entering a sperm bank's "masturborium" for some first-, uh, hand reporting on semen donation. (His contribution passes the bank's requirements, but he declines to become an actual donor.) In between the alarming and the absurd, we also get something more, something unexpected: an ongoing, fascinating and deeply felt meditation on fatherhood and family.

The Sunday Times of London

The human story is painful and brilliantly related.....This is not just another local tale of Amerian freakery, this is the story of a fundamental change in our attitudes to reproduction. Unpretentious, well organised, simply and readably told, this is a fine book about the human spirit and its indomitable pursuit of error.

Wall Street Journal

A wonderfully readable and eye-opening account...The story of this genetic experiment is a rare contribution to the debate over biotechnology, which usually ping-pongs between dystopians and techno-enthusiasts making broad, philosophical claims. By giving readers the case study of a serious -- and failed -- effort to engineer a better human race, Mr. Plotz brings the discussion back down to earth, where it belongs.

Chicago Tribune

"Plotz's wonderful history of the Nobel sperm bank is filled with wit, pathos and insight."

CBS Sunday Morning

Another winning conversation piece in the weird science world is "The Genius Factory" by *David Plotz.* It's the true story of the so-called Nobel Prize sperm bank, an experiment in eugenics that was supposed to produce super babies. The book tells some sad stories about the offspring of the experiment, yet in the end, it's a very amusing account of how much went wrong.

Washingtonian Magazine

"But while The Genius Factory does uncover an offbeat corner of American entrepreneurship—not to mention, among other things, the fascinating US role in the rise of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century--the surprise is how, for all of the author's humor and skepticism, this is ultimately a moving, even tender, tribute to the multiple ways in which families are created, revised, and sustained."


"Is "The Genius Factory" a cautionary tale? An exposé? ...A fun, easy read? A sensitive portrayal of the lengths that people will go to create clan? The answer is all of the above."

The San Francisco Chronicle

"In our technologically accelerating age of still-raging debates on family values, culture and other dicey infusions of moral and social complexity into the realm of public health, Plotz's history, "The Genius Factory," isn't merely curious, it's useful."

New York Times Book Review

"Beguiling....Plotz's take on the role of genes now -- in our imaginations and in fact, so far as we can determine that -- is humane and funny, which are fine traits for any argument, or any book."

--Polly Morrice

Edmonton Journal

"Plotz is a writer to watch. At its best The "Genius Factory" is both ariotous detective story and brilliant cultural analysis. It reads like vintage science fiction, filled with savage ironies that the most talented writer would have trouble making up...makes a great beach book, simultaneously fascinating and weird."

Mother Jones

"Plotz, a writer and editor for Slate, stumbled upon the story of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, but he became enthralled with the strange tale and tells it here with both humor and insight. ....The Genius Factory is distinctive in the way it reveals the aspirations of an entire culture and the zaniness of its particular narrator at the same time. Plotz is as driven as a spermatozoa, thrashing his way across the country in search of people almost impossible to reach and questions too deep to decipher. Using Slate as his message board, he orchestrates audacious reunions between fathers and children, acting less like a journalist and more like a high-stakes party planner, but who can blame him? His book is one hell of a bash. His invitees are the brilliant men who, years ago, agreed to store their output in a vat of liquid nitrogen, the women who sought insemination with such seed, and the results, named Alton and Tom and Victoria and Joy, their abilities, their proclivities, their failures and successes. Says one of the sperm-bank parents, "We feel we have a duty to raise this child for the betterment of society. We'll give her the best educational opportunities possible. We'll begin training Victoria on computers when she's three, and we'll teach her words and numbers before she can walk."
"Pshaw, we say. That's too reductive. Human beings are the product of nature and nurture and profound forces not yet understood. However, a little piece of us wonders: Is it possible to locate and breed intelligence? They do it with dogs, don't they? It is this question, played out again and again, that makes Plotz's story of the Nobel babies so compulsively readable."

"The Genius Factory is a riveting account of a truly bizarre episode in American history--Robert Graham's crusade to save the human race. David Plotz has written a superb book about the quest for genius, and, ultimately, family."

--Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink


"Twisted and engrossing."

Publisher's Weekly

"Building on a series of articles he wrote for Slate, Plotz investigates the legacy of the Repository for Germinal Choice, a California sperm bank that was to have been stocked exclusively by Nobel laureates. Very few donors in the institution's 19-year run really had Nobels, and the one publicly acknowledged laureate was William Shockley, a notorious racist. Plotz has fun poking holes in the eugenic vision of the repository's founder, self-made millionaire Robert Graham, and his ambition to collect "the Godiva of sperm." More captivating, however, is Plotz's recounting of the efforts of the women who visited the repository to discover the identities of their donors. As he gets to know a cluster of families and donors, Plotz reaches insightful conclusions about the unforeseen emotional consequences of artificial insemination. The "reunions" his research helps bring about include the elderly scientist who adopts a grandfatherly role in a young girl's life and a teenager who takes his wife and infant son along to meet his "dad" and finds him sharing a house with Florida drug dealers. The attempt to breed genius babies may have an aura of surreal humor, but the sensitive narration always reminds us of the real lives affected--and created--through this oddball utopian scheme."

Kirkus Reviews

"When Plotz began writing about the so-called Nobel Prize sperm bank for Slate, where he's a deputy editor, he asked that anyone involved with the experiment contact him. The result was a series of e-mails, which, in turn, led to the series of articles that form the basis of this, his first book. Plotz provides a profile of Graham, a millionaire optometrist with a mission to halt the genetic decay that he believed was threatening the human species, his solution being to found the Repository for Germinal Choice, which he hoped to stock with the sperm of Nobel Prize winners. The involvement of physicist William Shockley, a Nobelist with alarming racist views, turned the bank "from a curiosity into a menace and then into a joke," and its two Nobel donors quit. Graham then looked for men of accomplishment who were younger, taller, more athletic and better looking than Nobel laureates to fill the orders from women eager to bear children with "superior" genes. In 1999, two years after Graham's death, the bank closed, having produced only 215 children. Of those, Plotz made contact with 30, in person, by phone, or by e-mail. His stories about them are revealing, sad and comic. From his small and admittedly nonrandom sample, he concludes that while they aren't geniuses, these people do tend to have attentive mothers with high expectations who push them to excel. Nurture, it would seem, trumps nature. Still, Graham's sperm bank did, for the first time, allow women opting for artificial insemination to make informed choices from catalogues of well-described donors, a practice now standard in the thriving sperm bank business. As a bonus, Plotz offers an entertaining firsthand account of what's involved in becoming a present-day donor.

Fresh, funny, with deft profiles of singular individuals."

"If it weren't so disturbingly true, The Genius Factory would be a gripping work of science fiction. David Plotz's terrific reporting uncovers one man's creepy quest to 'improve' the species and its complex, touching, troubling, very human repercussions."

--Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

"I want to start a Terrific Writers Sperm Bank, and the first seed I want in the inventory is David Plotz's. Plotz has it all. He's an incredible, unstoppable reporter -- unrelenting yet always fair and compassionate -- and a deft, witty writer. Plotz's account of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is an absorbing, surprising, deeply human tale of deceit and megalomania, of hopes and dreams and eugenics gone wild."

--Mary Roach, author of Stiff

"One part detective story, one part cultural snapshot, and one part just plain weird, the tale of California's infamous Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is unexpectedly enthralling. David Plotz gives us the science, the business, the ambitions, and most especially the people: from founders to donors to mothers and children. A marvelous and thoroughly engaging read."

--Atul Gawande, author of Complications

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