Thanks to everyone for their welcome back messages. Life got a bit crazy there for a minute. And welcome to our new readers. It’s nice to have you along for the ride with us.
I’ve been lucky to have some adventures while we’ve been on hiatus. I got to travel to the US of A for work. My co-workers visa never showed up so I was travelling by myself but the lovely Southern hospitality made up for that.
But that means I’ve only read two books in the last two months. One was Artemis, which I am planning to review here, but I think I need to skim it again because honestly I’ve largely forgotten about it. I’m not sure if that says more about my memory or the book itself.
The other was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. I think technically this is classified as a crime/thriller novel, but it has a bit of science fiction (or science realism depending on how you view it) bent to it.
A breakneck race against time…and an implacable enemy. An anonymous young woman murdered in a run-down hotel, all identifying characteristics dissolved by acid. A father publicly beheaded in the blistering heat of a Saudi Arabian public square. A notorious Syrian biotech expert found eyeless in a Damascus junkyard. Smoldering human remains on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan. A flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity. One path links them all, and only one man can make the journey. Goodreads synopsis
Pilgrim is investigating a crime that is straight out of the book he wrote, but at the same time there is a terror plot to release small pox into the United States. I’m not going to go into too much of the plot of the novel except to discuss one aspect, the use of science. Much of the book centres around the terrorist synthesising, manufacturing and distributing the virus. I think this is where the book becomes “science fiction”. The book is clearly aiming to be set in the real world, and the science is supposed to be realistic, but my personal opinion is that our scientific technology is not advanced enough at present that an untrained person could bulk manufacture a weapons-grade version of small pox that is immune to the small pox vaccine, all from what is essentially a garage.
The author did go to great lengths to give explanations. For example, the author mentions that the terrorist simply accessed the genome sequence of the small pox virus from available scientific literature. A quick google shows that small pox has been sequenced so this is possible. It also shows up that there is some worry that this kind of thing could happen in real life.
So far, so good. Next the author explains that the terrorist collects equipment by purchasing it second hand. Ok. Fine. Still with you. There is definitely a market for second hand lab equipment. Then he orders up the required chemicals and base pairs and sets to work. Now this is where I get lost.
Within six months with no prior experience he successfully synthesises the virus. This is the kind of task PhD students spend 3 years failing at. These sorts of things are usually inevitably more fiddly than you’d think. Half the time would be spent trying to figure out what was going wrong.
But wait, there’s more. Not only did he successfully synthesise it, but then he also engineered or mutated it to be more lethal, which the author explains he did using well-established methods. If I had a $1 for every time something has gone wrong with a “well-established method”…. Realistically that’s at least another couple of years work there.
Finally, he splices in a new gene to make it evade the vaccine (there’s a whole post doc). After achieving 5-10 years worth of research in 6 months, he then spends another couple of months making 10,000 doses.
Don’t get me wrong. I do understand that this is fiction and not everything needs to be perfect, and if it had been set slightly into the future it would have seemed more plausible, but it wasn’t. The book was set not long after 9/11. I guess it makes me wonder how easy it is to mix realism and “science fiction” particularly if the book is set in the past and in this world. Though in this case this is more about a something that was probably technically possible at the time, but just highly unlikely. Perhaps if the author had been less detailed about it all, it would have been easier to gloss over. With all the explanations, I lost my ability to suspend disbelief. *Whew, rant over*
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