New release book review: THE HUMAN SIDE OF SCIENCE by Wiggins and Wynn book review of The Human Side of Science by Arthur R. Wiggins and Charles M. Wynn Sr.

The Human Side of Science cover


Publication date: April 2016
Category: Popular nonfiction / history of science / science biography

Summary (from the publisher):

This lively and humorous book focuses attention on the fact that science is a human enterprise. The reader learns about the foibles and quirks as well as the admirable ingenuity and impressive accomplishments of famous scientists who made some of the greatest discoveries of the past and present.

Examples abound: James Watson and Francis Crick formed a legendary partnership that led to the discovery of DNA, but they essentially ignored the contribution of female colleague Rosalind Franklin. Later, in the race to sequence the human genome, Watson criticized J. Craig Venter’s technique as a process that “could be run by monkeys.” Nikola Tesla once worked for Thomas Edison, but then quit after a dispute about a bonus. Robert Hooke accused Isaac Newton of stealing his ideas about optics. Plato declared that the works of Democritus should be burned.

With tongue-in-cheek illustrations by renowned science cartoonist Sidney Harris, this book takes the reader behind the scenes of scientific research to shine new light on the all-too-human people who “do” science.

ScienceThrillers review:

The Human Side of Science, subtitled “Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and other personal stories behind science’s big ideas,” is ‘lite’ history of science. Essentially this is a collection of mini-biographies of famous scientists, with an agenda. The agenda is to convey the messiness of doing science in real life. Personal conflicts between brilliant minds make good stories. Based on the many, many bits of biographical information contained in this book, such conflicts were not uncommon.

Unfortunately the authors of this volume are not themselves good storytellers. I finished this book and took away some interesting ideas (and themes, which I’ll get to in a moment). But I was disappointed because I had high expectations for the stories that could be told with the material at hand. As it is, information in the book does not flow in narrative form. Anecdotes are chosen and told but not prioritized in an artful sequence. Several times I was left hanging with key questions that I felt were not answered in the material provided.

Thematically, though, the book succeeds in conveying how people we look back on as “obviously” geniuses were not born with the word “genius” stamped on their foreheads. Like everyone else, they began as youths trying to make their way in the world, struggling through problems with school (a remarkable number were poor students), families, money, jobs, and girlfriends (’cause this is a book about men–see below). If you want to inspire kids to press forward with their ideas in spite of resistance, you’ll find plenty of role models here.

A nice part of The Human Side of Science is a broad cast of minor characters, people who worked with, worked against, supported, stole from, and fought with the heavyweight scientists featured in each chapter. Most of them I’d never heard of so it was fun to be introduced.

Another problem with the book is the scientists are almost exclusively male. While this isn’t normally a big deal for me, in this case it felt like a major oversight. Marie-Anne Lavoisier is credited for her work assisting her husband Antoine; Rosalind Franklin, the “dark lady of DNA,” gets a mention inside the chapter on Watson and Crick; Mileva Maric is featured not for her status as a physicist, but as Albert Einstein’s first wife; Lise Meitner gets two pages for her study of nuclear fission; Vera Rubin gets a paragraph for work on dark matter; a SETI astronomer named Jill Tarter gets two sentences. Inexplicably, a woman named Ann Druyan who worked as cowriter and TV producer for Carl Sagan gets a page, and the actress Hedy Lamarr gets two, which makes the absence of a chapter on Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel prize, all the more glaring. And where is Barbara McClintock? In the authors’ own words, “In this book we have chronicled almost four hundred people’s interactions over twenty-five hundred years and in dozens of countries of the world.” About ten of those people are women. I’m not impressed.

Despite its weaknesses, The Human Side of Science is a decent book with a welcome approach to making science interesting. An easy read, definitely worth checking out from your local library.

Most interesting thing I learned from this book: Einstein’s firstborn child “disappeared”–thriller novel, anyone?

Buy The Human Side of Science  from

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New release book review: THE BIG SHEEP by Robert Kroese book review of The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese.

The Big Sheep cover


(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: June 28, 2016
Category: Science fiction noir mystery/suspense with a touch of snark

Summary (from the publisher):

Los Angeles of 2039 is a baffling and bifurcated place. After the Collapse of 2028, a vast section of LA, the Disincorporated Zone, was disowned by the civil authorities, and became essentially a third world country within the borders of the city. Navigating the boundaries between DZ and LA proper is a tricky task, and there’s no one better suited than eccentric private investigator Erasmus Keane. When a valuable genetically altered sheep mysteriously goes missing from Esper Corporation’s labs, Keane is the one they call.

But while the erratic Keane and his more grounded partner, Blake Fowler, are on the trail of the lost sheep, they land an even bigger case. Beautiful television star Priya Mistry suspects that someone is trying to kill her – and she wants Keane to find out who. When Priya vanishes and then reappears with no memory of having hired them, Keane and Fowler realize something very strange is going on. As they unravel the threads of the mystery, it soon becomes clear that the two cases are connected – and both point to a sinister conspiracy involving the most powerful people in the city. Saving Priya and the sheep will take all of Keane’s wits and Fowler’s skills, but in the end, they may discover that some secrets are better left hidden.

ScienceThrillers review:

I first discovered author Robert Kroese when his independently published science thriller Schrodinger’s Gat came to me for review in 2013. I loved it and am kicking myself for not reading more of Kroese’s work (an ebook of his novel Starship Grifters languishes on my computer–so many books, so little time). Kroese is now a hybrid author; his new release is published by Thomas Dunne Books, one of the big players in the publishing world. I gave The Big Sheep a try and was totally hooked by the end of chapter one.

The Big Sheep is science fiction, set in a mildly dystopian (but quite recognizable) future Los Angeles. It’s also a mystery/suspense novel that shamelessly pays tribute to both LA noir crime fiction (Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and to Sherlock Holmes. By adapting those influences to SciFi, The Big Sheep is fresh and original.

Absurdity and humor (including moments when I laughed out loud) begin in the opening scene at a laboratory where we meet Erasmus Keane, self-described “phenomenological inquisitor” whose quirkiness and brilliance are a clear tribute to a Holmes-like private investigator. We see everything through the point of view of Keane’s Watson-like sidekick, Blake Fowler. Fowler’s voice carries the novel. He’s loyal, sensible, capable, snarky at the right times, and a force of sanity in Keane’s life. Like Watson, he also makes a good foil for Keane to show how clever he is. Heart and brain, these two make a great team.

The plot gets going when Keane and Fowler are visited by Priya Mistry, LA’s hottest starlet. In possibly my favorite scene of the whole book, Fowler is discombobulated by Mistry’s charisma while the oddly distracted young woman describes her fear that someone is trying to kill her. Questions abound as Keane and Fowler are drawn into a web of media powerhouses, warlords, scientists, and of course, sheep. Kroese’s storyline unfolds unpredictably and with plenty of delight. The author builds an interesting future world and creates future science that extrapolates nicely from what’s real today. Multiple plot threads come together for a satisfying climax that emphasizes words and thoughts over gunplay and chases.

I love Kroese’s writing style. To give you a sense of what he does, here are a few quotes:

“There had been a lot of technological advancements in firearms over the past twenty years, from biometric authentication devices to smart bullets that could go around corners, but for my money nobody in the past hundred years had really improved on the basic idea of making a hunk of metal go really goddamned fast in a straight line.”

“After all, paranoia was just the flip side of narcissism: it’s a short walk from ‘everybody loves me’ to ‘everybody is out to get me.'”

“I felt like hugging her, but something told me that would be wildly inappropriate–not to mention logistically difficult, since she was hunched down in a chair on the other side of my desk.”

The Big Sheep is an innovative and entertaining blend of science fiction and detective story. Smart readers of genre fiction will love the buddy pair of Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler. With just enough snark and plenty of sheep jokes, Robert Kroese’s book will be a favorite for fans of Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

Buy The Big Sheep on amazon

Note: The Big Sheep has much less foul language than Schrodinger’s Gat.

If you like science-themed fiction set in Los Angeles, you might enjoy: Petroplague by Amy Rogers

FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. I made no promise that I would write a review, good or bad.

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New release book review: BEIJING RED by Alex Ryan

New: Giveaway! Enter until June 15.

a Rafflecopter giveaway book review of Beijing Red by Alex Ryan.


(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: May 10, 2016
Category: Science thriller

Summary (from the publisher):

When ex-Navy SEAL Nick Foley travels to China to find purpose and escape the demons of his past, he instead stumbles into a conspiracy his Special Forces training never prepared him for. A mysterious and deadly outbreak ravages a remote area of western China, and Nick finds himself the lead suspect in a bio-terrorism investigation being conducted by China’s elite Snow Leopard counter-terrorism unit.

To clear his name and avoid prosecution, he must team up with beautiful Chinese CDC microbiologist Dr. Dazhong “Dash” Chen to find who is really behind the attack. As their investigation proceeds, their budding friendship is tested by nationalistic loyalties and suspicion.

In a race against time, Nick and Dash must risk everything to stop a mad man before he unleashes the world’s next super-weapon in Beijing.

ScienceThrillers review:

Beijing Red is the first book in a new thriller series by Alex Ryan, the pseudonym for the writing team Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson. Andrews and Wilson, both thriller novelists with books of their own, happen to both be US Navy veterans, Andrews having served as an officer aboard a nuclear submarine, and Wilson as a combat surgeon with the Navy SEALs. International Thriller Writers annual summer conference ThrillerFest brought these two together, and a collaboration was born.

The result is awesome. I love it when smart people who can write, write thrillers, and their intelligence shines through.

Beijing Red delivers everything you’d want from a thriller: an exotic setting (China), an unlikely pairing of hero and heroine (a former Navy SEAL and a Chinese scientist), a ticking clock to mass disaster, and plenty of twists. On top of that, it’s got science.

The book opens with a sudden, unexplained, gruesome death. An unknown killer germ is high on the list of suspects. Dash’s investigation of the deadly agent proceeds in a largely believable way (with the exception, perhaps, of her inadequate protections against a possible BSL-4 organism) and the laboratory scenes get a thumb’s up from me. When the nature of the agent was revealed, I gave a squeal of delight. Any thriller that correctly uses acquired vs innate immunity, and apoptosis, makes my day.

While I was attuned to the science aspects of this novel, its military / special operations angle is perhaps its greatest strength. Nick Foley, the main character, is an ex-Navy SEAL medic, and the expertise of the authors shows in their portrayal of this man. You’ll get a sense of how real veterans must think when confronted with a hunt, or a threat. And there’s plenty of military lingo and weapons vocabulary, all of which I’m sure is accurate (not that I would know).

In fact, I think the strongest scene in the entire book isn’t even part of the central plot. It’s a flashback to Foley’s time in Afghanistan, and the scene is brilliant.

Twists in Beijing Red don’t rise to the level of being total, breathtaking surprises, but they’re good enough. Without giving a spoiler, I’ll say that I particularly liked the way certain alliances were formed counter to my expectations.

The novel has its imperfections. My main criticism is that logic and motivation are sometimes given a back seat to the page-turning plot. A couple of great scenes unfold that make the reader happy, but they do raise my eyebrows in terms of whether they are believable. Late in the novel, a decision to enter Beijing’s Underground City was an example of this.

But this is a thriller novel. In exchange for entertainment, the reader will forgive a little unreality. Beijing Red delivers the goods in terms of fun, thrills, a little horror, science, and heroics. The Nick Foley series is off to a great start.

ScienceThrillers BLURB:

Beijing Red features a character who thinks like a real scientist, in a relentlessly paced thriller set in an exotic locale–science thriller fans, rejoice!

This book should appeal to fans of:

The Sigma Force series by James Rollins

Other books by Brian Andrews: The Calypso Directive (science thriller); By Jeffrey Wilson: The Traiteur’s Ring and others

FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. I made no promise that I would write a review, good or bad.

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Classic SciFi reviews: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Here at, I primarily review thrillers (fiction and occasionally nonfiction) with science or medicine in them.  Previously, I’ve discussed how SciThri is different from SciFi (read post What is a Science Thriller?).  This is part of my series of reviews of classic SciFi novels.

Left Hand of Darkness
Summary (from the publisher): A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula LeGuin (author of Earthsea cycle) tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.


I’m a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Recently I ran into two unrelated mentions of another of her books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (including this one). Because I had not heard of this novel before, two encounters seemed like a sign. I checked out a copy from my library.

The Left Hand of Darkness does what the greatest SF novels do so well. It takes a speculative setting (another planet in an unspecified future), adds a deeply developed civilization that is almost human but not quite, and uses this setting as a way to explore aspects of the human experience. In this case, the novel is about love.

As mentioned in the summary, the defining difference between the humans of the planet Gethen/Winter and the rest of us is their indeterminate gender. With the exception of rare natural “perverts,” every person on Gethen is neither male nor female, but both and neither. With the regularity of a menstrual cycle, Gethens enter kemmer, a period of a few days when they become sexually active—basically in heat—and they sexually differentiate into either a man or a woman in a semi-random fashion, and sexual reproduction follows in the usual way. Therefore everybody on Gethen can be both a mother and a father at different times in their lives.

LeGuin notes that sexual duality influences human society in profound and subtle ways, and presents Gethen society as a vision (neither “better” nor “worse”) of how this lack of duality might manifest.

To my surprise, however, sex is not a major, overt theme of this story. Rather the focus is on a (nonsexual) relationship between a (male) human and a Gethen individual. The first 2/3 of the book is a setup for the extraordinary final third. In the beginning, the author builds a world and a society, sets up political intrigue and conflict. The world-building is masterfully done, though I wondered a little about the languid pace at times.

The novel abruptly changes at the halfway point, when the protagonist’s fate takes a dramatic turn for the worse. For many pages I couldn’t put this book down. Then things slowed again during a prolonged journey across a glacier. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that this section which seems devoid of plot is actually the big payoff of the whole book. In understated and psychologically profound ways, LeGuin shows what is intimacy, what is love. She pulls it all together for an appropriate conclusion that carries a heavy authenticity and emotional resonance for the reader. I think the feeling I got of slogging through the long journey as a reader is precisely the effect that the author was going for, as it is necessary for the emotional finish.

In summary, a splendid work of literary science fiction with a few thriller elements that I’m very glad I decided to read.

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New release book review: THE PRISONER OF HELL GATE by Dana I. Wolff book review of The Prisoner of Hell Gate by Dana I. Wolff.

Publication date: Ebook May 3, 2016; paperback July 5, 2016
Category: Suspense/horror with history of science

Summary (from the publisher):


In the Hell Gate section of New York’s East River lie the sad islands where, for centuries, people locked away what they most feared: the contagious, the disfigured, the addicted, the criminally insane.

Here infection slowly consumed the stricken. Here a desperate ship captain ran his doomed steamship aground and watched flames devour 1,500 souls. Here George A. Soper imprisoned the infamous Typhoid Mary after she spread sickness and death in Manhattan’s most privileged quarters.

George’s great-granddaughter, Karalee, and her fellow graduate students in public health know that story. But as they poke in and out of the macabre hospital rooms of abandoned North Brother Island—bantering, taking pictures, recalling history—they are missing something: Hidden evil watches over them—and plots against them.

When death visits Hell Gate, it comes to stay.

As darkness falls, the students find themselves marooned—their casual trespass having unleashed a chain of horrific events beyond anyone’s imagination.

Disease lurks among the eerie ruins where Typhoid Mary once lived and breathed. Ravenous flies swarm puddles of blood. Rot and decay cling to human skin. And spiteful ghosts haunt the living and undead.

Soon five students of history will learn more than they ever wanted to know about New York’s foul underbelly: the meaning of spine-tingling cries down the corridor, of mysterious fires, of disfiguring murder, and of an avenging presence so sinister they’d rather risk their lives than face the terror of one more night.

ScienceThrillers review:

The Prisoner of Hell Gate hooked me with an original history of science premise. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant working as a cook in turn-of-the-century New York. A survivor of typhoid fever herself, she was an asymptomatic carrier of the deadly bacteria. Because of poor sanitation and her work in the kitchen, she inevitably caused outbreaks of typhoid in the homes where she was employed. In the pre-antibiotic era there was no cure for her condition. When she stubbornly refused to give up her work as a cook, a public health officer named George Soper tracked her down and had her sent to quarantine, where she spent the rest of her life.

Author Dana I. Wolff takes this compelling true story and asks, what if Mary Mallon were still alive, somehow lingering on the now-abandoned island in New York’s East River? What if a descendant of the man who imprisoned her came into her clutches?

In general terms, the setup of this novel is horror cliche. A group of young people are stranded on a creepy island. They’re stalked by a killer. The girls are even wearing swimsuits.

But The Prisoner of Hell Gate is no cheesy slasher tale. Written with literary flair and superb characterization, this chilling, elegant horror story is a delight. Though the final destination of the plot may not be in doubt, the journey is a gripping escalation of tension in the finest horror tradition, with psychological twists to boot. Wolff’s use of the present tense, while slightly disorienting at first, gives the story a happening-right-now urgency. His use of language and description are decidedly more literary than genre fiction. This is horror for readers who appreciate good writing.

Other books by this author, writing as JE Fishman: Primacy

If you like The Prisoner of Hell Gate, you might like: Seeders by AJ Colucci

If you’re interested in Typhoid Mary, you might like: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro (YA historical fiction about a teenage girl working as Soper’s assistant)

FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. I made no promise that I would write a review, good or bad.

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LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren giveaway

I just bought my copy of the memoir Lab Girl by Minnesota girl-turned-scientist Hope Jahren. I haven’t read it yet but once I do, I’ll review it here at

In the meantime, GoodReads is hosting a giveaway for 10 copies.

Here’s the rather breathless description from the publisher:

National Best Seller

An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.

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Book review: LIGHTS OUT by Ted Koppel book review of Lights Out by television journalist Ted Koppel.



Publication date: 2015
Category: Nonfiction

Summary (from the publisher):

In this investigation, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.

Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before.

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.”

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid. The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

ScienceThrillers review:

Ted Koppel is a television journalist known to millions for his 25-year role hosting Nightline. His new, chilling, book-length work of investigation Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, reflects his TV news sensibilities, and not in a good way.

In many places, Lights Out reads like a transcript of a Nightline episode, with the needling questions and a response from a squirming official. Some useful insight emerges from this approach, but it remains superficial. Personally I prefer books written by thinkers with more of an academic bent.

Koppel achieves his main purpose, which is to frighten the reader into awareness of a terrorism threat that could make 9/11 look like a picnic. A cyberattack on the nation’s electrical grid could suddenly send huge swaths of the country back to the 1800s. A terrorist-caused blackout could far exceed any natural disaster in scope and duration. We might face months or years of power loss over many states. How could urban areas possibly survive?

This question drives Koppel’s investigation as he reveals that no one has an answer, or even a plan.

For raising awareness of this issue, Koppel gets my praise. However, chapter 1 of the book pretty much does the job. The rest of the pages are either repetitive, or they wander off topic. Koppel delves into the general issue of cybersecurity, and also devotes quite a few chapters to preppers, people and organizations who used to be called “survivalists.” I personally enjoyed these chapters most of all, as the TV journalism style is well-suited to telling the stories of some folks in Wyoming, and the Mormon church, which takes preparedness as a point of doctrine.

Koppel’s insistence that we need to do a better job with disaster preparation in general (for any kind of attack or natural disaster), is well taken. I agree with him that citizens no longer take enough personal responsibility for civil defense or preparedness, instead delegating to the state, which even in a perfect world cannot manage the task alone. His arguments for the government, military, and civil society to do more to beef up cybersecurity or specifically protect the grid fail to take into consideration the multitude of competing concerns, such as terror attacks on water supplies, or biological warfare, or a radioactive dirty bomb. We can only do so much to “keep ourselves safe,” the vague standard by which many Americans now judge their leaders.

Most unsatisfying for me, Koppel left some big questions unanswered. I’m mystified as to the technical reasons why attacking the grid would affect such a large area. His use of analogies explained nothing. Also, he argues that the power companies’ desire to protect privacy is hampering the effort. I ask, why is privacy such a big issue for them? What information do they have that is so valuable? Finally, the book is totally lacking in information that “you can use.” Having convinced the reader that each of us needs to do something, he fails to direct that motivation into action.

But perhaps that’s his point. We need a plan developed on high, so to speak, that will be communicated to all of us–before the power goes out.

I recommend this one as a library check-out, not a purchase. Read chapter 1 and the first couple of chapters of part 3, on Wyoming and the Mormons. Skim the rest if you find it interesting enough.

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Internet of Things: Guest post by Denison Hatch

ScienceThrillers welcomes Denison Hatch, author of Flash Crash, a financial technothriller released this week.

Summary: David Belov, a quant programmer working for an investment bank in New York, is blackmailed into writing an algorithm that will intentionally crash the gold market. David discovers that his virtual “Flash Crash” was simply a required stepping stone towards the largest physical gold robbery in history, and that’s he’s been framed for the resulting chaos, the lives of his beloved wife and son on the balance.

With Detective Jake Rivett and the NYPD’s finest operators from the Major Crimes Division actively seeking to locate and arrest David, and other, darker elements nipping at his heels, David is forced to confront his own past in order to have a future…

Hacking the Real World: Thrills abound in the “Internet of Things” era (from Flash Crashes to Pacemaker Assassinations).

Guest post by Denison Hatch

One cannot escape discussion of the “Internet of Things” in the current day, with Nest devices advertised at every Home Depot, refrigerators that tell you when you’re out of milk, and entire municipal systems controlled by computers from both central and cloud-based locations. And this is just the beginning. In ten to fifteen years, cars will also have joined the massive, interconnected world and the quaint “real world” that our parent’s generation grew up in will eventually be one that looks quite foreign to the socio-physical environment of the future. A recent study by Business Insider indicates that IoT-connected devices will continue to double every eighteen months for the foreseeable future. And as they do, they will permeate throughout every instance of our life—from the food we eat, to the way we travel and communicate, and all the way to commerce and the money we use on a daily basis.

I spent quite a bit of time researching the Internet of Things while doing research for my thriller novel, Flash Crash. Of particular interest to me was the way that financial markets have become increasingly controlled by technology. The old image—of a Wall Street trader who wears striped Brooks Brothers and operates, as my book describes it, on “luck, spit and a handshake”—is quickly fading from the modern zeitgeist. That person has slowly become replaced by the “quant.” The quantitative analyst or programmer, culled from a growing pool of ambitious PhD, mathematics, and computer science majors, creates computer systems that trade thousands of commodities and equities around the world. What’s more, modern investment banks and secretive-but-powerful hedge funds alike no longer trust the speed of the human brain when it comes to trading. Trading is conducted by super computers, located within inches from the exchanges that they are participating in, and conducting a modern version of electronic combat against one another. Counter-strategies are designed to root out other parties’ strategies. There is, indeed, an arms race occurring within the black boxes that control the modern financial world and it shows no signs of stopping.

This idea enthralled me, and brought about a parallel thought. What if someone could indeed engineer a program that would intentionally crash a particular stock or market?

While this idea would later become the basis from which I designed my thriller novel, I had to do my research. First of all, had something like this ever happened before? It turns out that both mini and major “Flash Crashes” have occurred throughout the market’s history. And they are increasing. A firm called NANEX keeps track of suspicious order flow and volume and subsequent correlation with Flash Crash incidences. It has been proven that there are numerous examples of unexplained crashes in financial markets—and major winners and losers on either side of these events.

It quickly became clear to me that individuals are using machines to enact very real—monetary—gain from the world. And this got me thinking: What else were people using machines to do in order to effect real-world events? Turns out, the possibilities for the “Internet of Things” world are endless. It gets both much darker, and much crazier. All of the following really happened:

  • Dam Hacking: Iranian hackers infiltrated the industrial control systems of a dam twenty miles outside of New York City in Rye, NY. This event indicated to security officials in the United States that the water and electric supply in our country is now a valid target for both criminals and hostile nations.
  • Car Hacking: Hackers remotely kill a Jeep on a highway and filmed it happening. Two researchers created a device that could and did hack into a retail-purchased Jeep Cherokee. They performed this hack with a reporter from Wired magazine sitting the in car.
  • Nuclear Centrifuge Hacking: The Stuxnet virus is a mysterious and hostile computer virus created specifically to hack into the industrial control systems of the particular model and brand of centrifuge that Iran was using to develop radioactive material. Numerous articles have been written about the creator of the virus, thought perhaps to be a joint intelligence operation between Israel and the United States. But no matter who created it, the effect was real: Massive failures and attrition suffered by the targeted centrifuge devices.
  • Pacemaker Hacking: Multiple researchers have presented hacked pacemakers and other medical devices (such as insulin pumps) in real-world settings. The real question is not if but when are we going to see our first pacemaker assassination?

As many know, the future doesn’t arrive neatly. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously said, his company’s motto is “Move fast and break things.” The creators of connected systems and devices around the world are certainly moving fast. But are they moving so fast that serious security problems will develop? This is the question that society must as ask we move forward together.

However, thriller writers and readers, especially those oriented towards the slightly more technical, will no doubt delight in many of the “quandaries” of the future presenting themselves within the plots and set pieces of the books they love to read.

With Flash Crash, we attempted to attack the reality of this new twist in the modern zeitgeist head-on. The book is all about controlling the real world through technology. One of our leads is David Belov, a quant who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps at every stage in life. After David is coerced into causing a crash in the gold market and framed for the resulting chaos, he must clear his name. This eventually leads David to literally hack a soda machine in order to create a Trojan horse which will lead him—and his compatriots—into an inaccessible vault buried under four stories of impenetrable granite and completely controlled by computers.

You can check out Flash Crash, now available on paperback and Kindle, here.

Denison Hatch
About the author:
Denison Hatch is a screenwriter and novelist based in Los Angeles. Although he lives in the proverbial desert now, he is originally from Delaware–land of rolling hills, forested valleys, and DuPont gunpowder.

Denison has a number of feature and television projects in development, including his original screenplay, Vanish Man, which is set up at Lionsgate. A graduate of Cornell University, Denison lives with his fiancé in a little house in Hollywood.

FLASH CRASH is Denison’s debut novel, and the first in the Jake Rivett series.

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