Thursday, March 10, 2011

Attack of the killer mushrooms

I have reviewed for Nature the thriller Spiral by nanotech expert Paul McEuen. It is somewhat formulaic but great fun. One could quibble that the villains are East Asians, but Paul is pretty harsh (if, I suspect, scarily accurate) on the US military too.

One of the more humdrum obligations I have had to fulfil in the line of duty was to read Michael Crichton’s Prey, a thriller based on the premise of nanotechnological robot swarms run amok. An ingénue in this genre, I found myself comparing the characters’ psychological implausibility with the non-sequitur quirks of figures from myth and legend. But with guns.

Crichton, of course, made millions with his formula. Whether Spiral (Dial Press, New York, 2011) will do the same for Cornell physicist Paul McEuen remains to be seen (the movie rights are already sold), but it deserves to. It is more enjoyable, more palatable, and (as though this matters) boasts impeccable science rather than the half-digested fare that Crichton occasionally seemed to mistake for the real thing.

There’s nothing here, it should be said, that bucks the thriller formula. Indeed, Spiral made me realise that these books already are movies in literary form: every scene is tailored for the screen, and you can’t help but do the casting as you read. The dialogue is based on how people speak in blockbusters, not in life, and there’s the familiar cast: the vulnerable but plucky mother, the clinically ruthless assassin, the sadistic billionaire, the kid in peril, and so on. The race against time, the apocalyptic threat. And just as these films, if done well, offer a great ride, so does Spiral. It’s more fun than Prey or Angels and Demons, and won’t make your toes curl.

The story begins at the end of the Second World War, when young Irish microbiologist Liam Connor is brought on board a US warship to witness the effects of a devastating biological weapon developed by the Japanese: a fungal infection called the Uzumaki, which induces terrible hallucinations and madness and is ultimately fatal. Connor ends up hiding away a tiny vial of the stuff, wrestled from the Japanese engineer Hitoshi Kitano who was responsible for developing it in northern China.

Sixty years later Connor is an octogenarian with a Nobel prize, and still in active research at Cornell. Unknown to the authorities, he has for decades been secretly searching for the cure that he is sure will one day be needed for the Uzumaki. Aware that the nation that holds the cure also possesses a terrible weapon, he is determined to keep his work from the military. Then he is found dead at the bottom of a gorge, apparently having thrown himself over the edge to escape from a mysterious woman caught on CCTV footage. His coded last message to his colleague Jake Sterling, his granddaughter Maggie and her son Dylan, makes them the only people who can prevent a global outbreak of the killer fungus. But who is behind the fiendish scheme to release it?

You can see a lot of this coming, and as usual the climax depends on who can reach the gun fastest, but that doesn’t detract from the compulsive page-turning quality. And as far as the science goes, McEuen shows that the imagination of an inventive scientist is far more interesting than that of a writer who has merely done his homework – here he trumps not only Crichton but his namesake Ian McEwen who peppers his narratives with cutting-edge science, most notably in his recent novel Solar. It’s a delight to watch how McEuen – a world expert in nanoelectronics – has marshalled his knowledge to kit out the technical plot devices: nanotechnology, microbiology, information technology and synthetic biology are all brought into play in a convincing, unforced manner. Devotees of the latest trends will recognize many elements, from genetically engineered oscillating fluorescence to microfluidic labs-on-chips.

I confess that my interest struggles rather more to find purchase with square-jawed, stolid heroes with names like Jake whose physical prowess and ex-army credentials are carefully established in preparation for the gutsy displays that will inevitably be required of them. But that’s the genre, and Jake is a little less tiresomely bland than the wooden leads in Dan Brown and Crichton. A more appealing hero, however, is Cornell University itself, which enjoys a rather touching love letter here from the author. But the stars of the show are, as ever, the villains: the MicroCrawlers that scrabble ominously across the cover, microelectromechanical devices that acquire a seriously bad attitude.

Next time I hope McEuen dares to push harder at the boundaries of the genre. But I certainly hope there will be a next time, if he can escape both the lab bench and the all-consuming jaws of Hollywood.


Maxine Clarke said...

I thought Prey was so awful that I swore I'd never read another of its ilk (I don't think I even finished it). Although this one does sound better, I think I shall probably stick to my decision, but your review is very nice.

Philip Ball said...

Well, great literature it ain't. But I had more fun than I'd expected, although that was doubtless helped by knowing that Paul is a nice bloke (and Crichton wasn't). If you never finished Prey, you probably missed the most unintentionally funny bits at the end...

@CLANicholson said...

I also thought that Prey was terrible, and haven't read any Crichton since (although other factors obviously may have contributed to that), but The Andromeda Strain was great, and scientifically seemed fairly reasonable to me too. Likewise Jurassic Park, and although Rising Sun and Airframe weren't scientific, I thought they were both first-rate thrillers, and Airframe did seem very well researched. Not all of his work was crap, is what I'm saying!

Unknown said...

It is gratifying to see a review written by a real writer; all too often the critic is failed would-be. I make this comment having just read The Sun and the Moon Corrupted, which I gladly hoist into my (albeit fluid) top ten. I am rarely gripped, intrigued and informed in one novel, erudite binding. The strikingly economic descriptions of character and scene have inspired me not to bother writing myself. I will just look forward to laying my hands on another of your works.

Thank You,

Mike Conn