New release book review: THE DOOMSDAY EQUATION by Matt Richtel

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel.

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Publication date: February 24, 2015
Category: thriller; technothriller

Summary (from the publisher):

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author of A Deadly Wandering comes a pulse-pounding technological thriller—as ingenious as the works of Michael Crichton and as urgent and irresistible as an episode of 24—in which one man has three days to prevent annihilation: the outbreak of World War III.

Computer genius Jeremy Stillwater has designed a machine that can predict global conflicts and ultimately head them off. But he’s a stubborn guy, very sure of his own genius, and has wound up making enemies, and even seen his brilliant invention discredited.

There’s nowhere for him to turn when the most remarkable thing happens: his computer beeps with warning that the outbreak of World War III is imminent, three days and counting.

Alone, armed with nothing but his own ingenuity, he embarks on a quest to find the mysterious and powerful nemesis determined to destroy mankind. But enemies lurk in the shadows waiting to strike. Could they have figured out how to use Jeremy, and his invention, for their own evil ends?

Before he can save billions of lives, Jeremy has to figure out how to save his own. . . .

ScienceThrillers review:

“Big data” is making it possible to make all kinds of predictions based on correlations with variables that might not seem obviously connected. For example, data on Google searches can be used to predict outbreaks of seasonal flu; predictive policing uses computer models to anticipate crime.

In The Doomsday Equation: A Novel, technology & culture journalist Matt Richtel takes real-world computing capabilities one small step forward and posits a program that can predict global conflict, creating a brilliant premise: what if that program predicted the outbreak of WWIII in three days’ time? And what if the program’s creator was both discredited and uncertain whether the prediction is correct?

Combine this original and gripping hook with a psychologically intense point of view character, and you’ve got a five-star page turner.

Like Richtel’s previous smart thrillers (The Cloud, Devil’s Plaything), The Doomsday Equation is set in San Francisco, with Silicon Valley culture as a backdrop. Doomsday is tighter, leaner, more intense than the previous novels, and likely to appeal to a wider audience. The book’s distinguishing feature is the voice. We are locked in the point of view of protagonist Jeremy Stillwater, told in the third person but with a forcefully first person perspective. Jeremy is alternately infuriating and sympathetic, blatantly self-destructive and yet vulnerable. The reader may want to slap him at times (I did), but never abandon him, which is basically the the same effect Jeremy has on his girlfriend in the story. In The Cloud, author Richtel played with the notion of an unreliable narrator who suffers a head injury in the opening pages, making all his interpretations of events suspect. In this book, unreliability appears again. This time, the protagonist isn’t crazy, but he may be being manipulated. Or is he just paranoid?

One of Richtel’s strengths, then, is using ambiguity to create tension. It works well in Doomsday Equation. Conversations between characters are often both oblique and opaque, as they might be in real life. It’s left to the intelligence of the reader to interpret the subtext. Facts aren’t revealed, they’re implied. Readers accustomed to being spoon-fed a plot may be frustrated by this. As a consequence of this systematic ambiguity, the plots of Richtel’s novels don’t wrap up in tidy packages. As with his previous books, the ending of Doomsday is very satisfying but don’t ask me to explain exactly who did what to whom, and why. But the overall collection of antagonists and motives made sense.

I must mention one other distinctive feature of Richtel’s novels. He writes in the present tense. I think this is an important part of the book’s intensity, but it takes a little getting used to.

I find Richtel to be one of the most quotable science thriller writers and I always like to include some book excerpts in my reviews:

“Like so many in the valley, he’s just shy of fully slick, geeky enough to come across as authentic. This type of businessperson in Silicon Valley is like the do-gooder from college who goes to Washington, DC, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between their ambitions for the world and for themselves.”

“A man in a fashionable red rain jacket chomps half a donut in a single bite, then looks around furtively,…guiltily wondering if someone might catch him eating too many carbs of the inorganic variety.”

“This development of mining and sifting the world’s conflict rhetoric could help answer an age-old philosophical question about the relationship between language, thought, and action…To what extent are the words we choose insights into what we think–not what we want to communicate, but what we really think?…All the linguistic data, unprecedented insights into the human psyche, a global ink blot test…”

For an intelligent thriller that borders on literary, you can’t do better. The Doomsday Equation creates a thoroughly contemporary flawed genius hero who is ill-suited to the high-stakes task before him: to save the world. As the doomsday clock ticks down, you won’t want to skip a single page.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader e-copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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Progeria as murder? THE RUNAWAY CLOCK by Bill Carrigan

ScienceThrillers welcomes author Bill Carrigan to discuss his science-themed future thriller The Runaway Clock. I’m intrigued by the science of aging and the dark love affairs of scientists in this story.

The year is 2033. Scientists are studying the aging process at a research laboratory in Baltimore. Dr. George Buell, department head, has met a violent death. He and his much younger wife, Jill, collected children with progeria (premature old age) to study and treat. Jill and Ray Lindsay, a young scientist (who tells the story), are in love.

Flash back a year. Ray and Buell agree to join forces, and Ray brings his research team to Buell’s lab. He and Jill meet. He isolates Senexin, a substance that seems to cause the children’s affliction. Buell discovers, but doesn’t disclose, the budding love affair.

Shift to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where a retired colleague has donated his estate for studies on oldsters. Of special interest here is spring water that protects small animals from x-ray. Buell theorizes that the water might also retard aging and wants to test it on the children. He and Ray drink it to check for toxicity.

Ray is deeply troubled about his love affair and Buell’s erratic behavior. He finds himself aging rapidly. As the year passes, horror and suspense mount through amazing discoveries, a vicious crime, and Buell’s shocking, tragic decline . . .

My novel The Runaway Clock is a sci-fi tale of dark revenge. It begins in 2034 at a research clinic in Baltimore. Dr. George Buell, department head, has met a violent death. He and his much younger wife, Jill, collected children with progeria (premature aging) to study and treat. Jill, their teacher, and biologist Ray Lindsay are secretly in love.

A year earlier, Ray and Buell agreed to join forces. Ray isolated senexin, a mutant protein that seems to cause the children’s condition (overriding others’ unconvincing claims for an agent called progerin). Buell discovers, but doesn’t disclose, the love affair. He covertly feeds senexin to Ray, who ages rapidly.

The story plays out in Florida, where Buell has taken Jill and the children. Ray is deeply troubled about the love affair, which he blames for his own progeria. As the year unfolds, horror and suspense mount through amazing discoveries, Buell’s further crimes, and his decline and death.

I conceived of the plot as the National Institute on Aging was created at the National Institutes of Health, where I wrote interpretively for forty years. In my spare time, while there and later at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I wrote and published fiction in various genres. Now retired, I’ve brought out new versions of seven novels and a collection of short stories. Search for “Books by Bill Carrigan” at Amazon.com.

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Guest post: THE CERULEAN’S SECRET by Dennis Meredith

As a cat lover and fan of real science in fiction, this new title sounds like good fun to me. So I’m sharing the press release I received from the publisher. –Amy R, ScienceThrillers.com


New Sci-Fi Novel Asks “WHAT IF THERE WAS A BLUE CAT?”

What if there was a blue cat? That oddball question first popped into
author Dennis Meredith’s head some thirty years ago, while he was the
news office director at Caltech. The result, decades later, is his newly
published science fiction novel, The Cerulean’s Secret.

The eccentric notion continued to nag at him, as he witnessed first-hand
the advance of the genetic engineering revolution through the decades
that followed—from its beginning at Caltech, with the invention of the
first DNA sequencing machine.

As the technology evolved, so did the story of his imaginary blue cat;
and he began crafting the novel some two decades ago, as genomic science
fiction became science fact.

Set in 2050, The Cerulean’s Secret envisions the rise of a lucrative
industry of genomically engineered pets. In particular, the high-flying
company Animata reaps massive profits creating and selling a marvelous
menagerie of animals—including exotic crosses like cogs, dats, snurtles,
alliphants, hamakeets, and feather boas. Its ultra-rich clients,
however, clamor for the really spectacular specimens—dragons, unicorns.
. . and the newest, the Cerulean cat with its mesmerizing iridescent
blue fur. The stunning cat had promised to bring billions of dollars
from a private collector, corporation, or exhibitor.

But the cat, dubbed the most beautiful in history, is stolen!

Swept up in the catnapping is naïve young Timothy Boatright, a wanna-be
writer who’s driving a cab in New York. He inadvertently picks up the
thief and the nabbed Cerulean. The cops suspect him of complicity in the
crime, and to prove his innocence and save the cat, he tracks it down
and steals it back. He ends up accused not only of catnapping but
murder—fleeing the police, Animata thugs, a greedy drug lord. . . and
Big Nasties! Somebody has programmed these 300-pound genetically
engineered assassin-animals—with their three-inch fangs, razor claws,
night vision, and sonar—not only to kill Tim, but shred him.

Amidst this mayhem, Tim realizes that the Cerulean was stolen and marked
for death because its genes hold some explosive mystery he must solve to
survive. He must also save his friends held for ransom—the middle-aged,
cat-loving former spy Callie Lawrence and her headstrong daughter Lulu,
with whom Tim has fallen madly in love.

The Cerulean’s Secret is a fast-paced thriller that projects today’s
amazing genomic technology into a future of incredible biological
manipulation. Its witty neo noir style and vivid prose lure the reader
into an adventure that extends the traditional science fiction genre
into new literary territory.

“Being a science writer, I aim in my novels to extrapolate my stories
from real science, which is sometimes even wilder than any science
fiction,” he says. “The Cerulean’s Secret was just such a novel, because
as I wrote it over many years, many of the devices I envisioned for
2050—from robot snakes, to virtual-reality glasses, to quantum
computers—kept showing up as real-life technology.” In fact,
resources Meredith used for The Cerulean’s
Secret can be found at his website.

“And, although I wanted to tell an exciting story, I also wanted to
explore the critical moral and ethical issues raised by our growing
ability to genetically engineer life.”

A Kindle young adult edition of The Cerulean’s Secret is also available with editing to eliminate adult language and situations.

Meredith is a veteran science writer who has worked at some of the
country’s leading research institutions—besides Caltech including MIT,
Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. He is author of science
fiction novels The Rainbow Virus, Wormholes, and Solomon’s Freedom. He
is also author of the nonfiction Explaining Research (Oxford 2010).

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New release book review: THE AFFLICTIONS by Vikram Paralkar

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar.


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Publication date: October 31, 2014
Category: fiction essay; medical fiction; literary fiction

Summary (from the publisher):

Shadowing an elderly librarian on his first day at the great Central Library, Máximo is thrilled to get a peek at the exclusive Encyclopedia of Medicine. It’s a dizzying collection of maladies: an amnesia that causes everyone you’ve ever met to forget you exist, while you remain perfectly, painfully aware of your history. A wound that grows with each dark thought or evil deed you commit but shrinks with every act of kindness. A disease that causes your body to imitate death, stopping your heart, cooling your blood. Will the fit pass before they bury you-or after?

The Afflictions is a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopedia of archaic medicine written by a contemporary physician and scientist. Little by little, these bizarre and mystical afflictions frame an eternal struggle: between human desire and the limits of bodily existence.

ScienceThrillers review:

The publisher’s summary misses the mark in conveying the spirit of this fascinating little volume. In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends the style and form of old-time medical writing with magical realism. The result is a series of very short, psychologically dense entries, each describing a fantastical “disease”. The publisher’s summary emphasizes the macabre aspect–and make no mistake, some of Paralkar’s imaginings are extremely grotesque–but the spirit is reflective. Each disease explores some aspect of the human condition or the soul. Each is like a flavorful stock that’s been reduced and concentrated. This short book (174 pages with plenty of white space) begs to be read in small bites, with the reader savoring and reflecting on each idea.

I found The Afflictions to be an engaging work of literary medical fiction, and my family ended up discussing some of the bizarre syndromes over dinner. Really imaginative stuff, though I’d say the strongest ones are in the first half to two-thirds of the book. The construct of an elderly librarian (who is the sole voice in the book) and a Central Library creates a mood and a structure to the book but is merely a scaffolding upon which the author can hang his entries. There is no “plot” or climax.

An excellent book for a book group, or for a classroom to discuss one piece at a time. For the solitary reader, The Afflictions will provide plenty of food for thought, even meditation.

Recommended for fans of Jorge Luis Borges.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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Descartes’ Cove, a math puzzle solving game for middle school students

Gaming can be more than shooting at stuff.

In the spirit of the great puzzle solving game Myst, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has created a puzzle-solving computer game adventure called Descartes’ Cove. This game for 6th-8th grade students uses beautiful graphics to challenge kids with material from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards.

In a leaky lifeboat, students survive an ocean storm, marooned on a deserted island once inhabited by Rene Descartes. They discover his parchment notebook, map and other gear, and begin their journey through island tunnels, volcanoes, and many more surprises! At each step, they solve increasingly difficult puzzles and math challenges, earn gold coins, and make entries in their own journal. As they master each math concept, they prepare to tackle the final quest to build a means to escape from the island.

Curious? Here’s a demo:

You’ll need a PC running Microsoft Windows and a CD drive to play (sadly the game doesn’t work on newer Macs). The six CD set ain’t cheap–$150–but schools can get a discount, and your library might have a copy.

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Guest author: Lisa von Biela on science in her technothrillers

ScienceThrillers welcomes author Lisa von Biela, who creates science-themed “dark fiction.” Ideas for Lisa’s thrillers originate in her science/technical legal work. She resides in Seattle but went to school in Minnesota–always a bonus with me!


Technothriller plots based on real science

by Lisa von Biela

Thank you, Amy, for inviting me and to those of you reading this!

I have a confession to make.  Scientific advances amaze me—and they also terrify me.  We can achieve so much good, yet we also have the power to either deliberately misuse science, or create havoc with an innocent error.  And this is precisely what drives me to write the novels I do.  I try to both entertain and explore the more serious “what if” issues raised by various scientific advances.

I base my novels on real science, though I admit to taking some liberties for plot purposes.  I believe it’s crucial to have at least the underpinnings of real science to explore the issues I do with some degree of authenticity.  Despite the liberties I take, some of the technologies in my books have either become reality, or are threatening to do so!

For example, I completed the manuscript for my debut novel, The Genesis Code, back in 2006.  The novel focused on the development and secret implementation of a tiny subcutaneous chip implanted close to the brain.  Ostensibly, the device would be used to download benign items such as training manuals and technical documents.  But…Dr. Josh Tyler intended to make it capable of two-way transmission and alteration of memories.  The novel was published in 2013, and in the intervening time, DARPA has begun experimenting with a similar device in the brains of soldiers to try to alter memories contributing to PTSD.

I take a few more liberties with current real science in The Janus Legacy, in which Dr. Jeremy Magnusson inherits SomaGene, his estranged father’s biotech business.  SomaGene cultivates individual autologous transplant organs in vitro for its clients, and then performs the transplant surgery in its rather high-tech facility.  This technology might not be that far off.  But before his death, Jeremy’s father had also developed a full human clone in the hopes that Jeremy could harvest the intestines to cure his severe Crohn’s disease.  Jeremy faces all manner of ethical issues in deciding what to do with the sentient clone.  Notably, several of my readers who actually have Crohn’s have commented that I captured life with the disease quite realistically.

My next novel, Blockbuster, is due out in January.  For this one, the real-life timeline for drug development created a tremendous hurdle for the plot.  So I set it 10 years in the future and “invented” various items of lab equipment that speed up the drug development process and eliminate the need for human studies.  I also “created” new versions of everyday technologies, like phones and portable computers, as well as special hospital equipment like disposable standalone isolation units.  In Blockbuster’s world, the MRSA  (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a deadly infection) we know is a thing of the past, and considered to be pretty mild.  BigPharma companies are doing whatever it takes to capture market share—including creating a bacteria far worse and more contagious than MRSA—as well as the antibiotic that cures it.  This is Denali Labs’ business model, and when its main competitor, Horton Drugs, tries to follow in the same path, things get out of control.  Way out of control.  I hope this isn’t really happening.

I’m not a practicing scientist, though I do have a scientific background.  I majored in Biology at UCLA (I was pre-vet then).  My life took a different turn, landing me in IT for 25 years before I dropped out to attend law school.  I became active in the American Bar Association’s SciTech section and published a weekly newsletter on scientific/legal developments called the BioBlurb while I was in school.  After graduation, I joined the editorial board of The SciTech Lawyer, a quarterly ABA publication.  I still serve on the board and co-edit issues in rotation.  When I was publishing the BioBlurb, I couldn’t resist making editorial remarks about the articles I’d cited (readers loved my snarky comments!)—and also thinking of all the novel fodder that was passing before my eyes.  I had no time to write during law school, but am making up for that now.

You can check out more of my background and work at www.lisavonbiela.com.  Thanks for reading!

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Best science gifts of 2014 (part 2)

Last chance to get your science-y gifts for Christmas. Click to see my part 1 suggestions for best science gifts of this season. Here I present to you an abundance of cool stuff from the catalog and online retailer Uncommon Goods.

mathglasses

Math glasses, set of four $38

pi bowl

Pi stainless steel basket $118

To view other math items from Uncommon Goods, click here.

earthglasses

Earth science glasses, set of four $38

tableblocks

geekblocksPeriodic table wooden blocks ($31), or super nerdy ABC wooden blocks ($50)

pillows

Chromosome pillows, $35 each

More science-themed items from Uncommon Goods here.


Got a reader on your list? If they like Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, or Michael Palmer, give them a copy of one of my science-themed thrillers Petroplague or Reversion. Visit AmyRogers.com/books for details and purchase links.

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It’s “Take your child to a bookstore” day!

ScienceThrillers.com advocates for science literacy and science education, but basic literacy must come first. The best way to get kids to read is to expose them to a wide variety of books, and let them choose. Libraries: YES! And today, how about taking them to a bookstore to choose a present for themselves or others?

Guest post by thriller author Jenny Milchman, who came up with the idea of designating the first Saturday in December as “Take your child to a bookstore” day.


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Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day

a.k.a.

How to Build Literacy, Support Community, & Make Magic Happen All in One Day

 In 2010 I had two young children whom I was bringing to story hour at our local bookstore almost every week. After all, what better activity to do with kids? It was enriching, fun, even relaxing. I didn’t have to feel guilty when I drank that 700 calorie butterscotch latte from the coffee bar. I was running back and forth between adult fiction and the flower-flocked children’s section—working off the calories for sure.

My kids probably didn’t realize it was as much of a treat for me as for them. Which started me thinking—were other parents in on this secret? How many children knew the pleasure of spending time in a bookstore?

I frequent the mystery listserv DorothyL, and a more avid group of readers you couldn’t hope to find. When I floated the idea for Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, bloggers on the listserv spread the word. My husband designed a poster, a website, and bookmarks, and we designated the first Saturday in December as Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. This would coincide with holiday gift giving, hopefully giving people the idea that books make great presents. Just two weeks later, 80 bookstores were celebrating.

That summer my husband and I loaded the kids into the car and drove cross-country, visiting more than fifty bookstores. (You can tell he’s a supportive guy). In 2011, the second annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day found over 350 bookstores celebrating in all 50 states. Some planned special celebrations—children’s book authors, puppet makers, singers, even a baker who led kids in a gingerbread cookie decorating activity—while others simply hung a poster in the window. When 2013 came around, and the number had risen to over 600 independent bookstores, and one major chain, we knew that word was getting out. Kids + bookstores = magic.

And maybe something even more than that.

There’s a cultural wave behind Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. The word locavore isn’t just for a Dr. Seuss story anymore. Supporting your local community and the resurgence of Main Street are goals that more and more people recognize as important to build strong citizens as well as strong readers.

You know that old ad campaign, “Orange juice isn’t just for breakfast anymore”? I hear that now as, “Bookstores aren’t just for reading anymore.”

And by that I mean more than the fact that you can also buy toys, cards, gifts, or have your butterscotch latte at a bookstore. Bookstores are places where people come together over ideas and engage in a cultural conversation. That concept is so important I have to say it again. They are places where people come together. And booksellers are a group who know how to zig while others are zagging, so impassioned are they by their life’s pursuit. Their stores are places of physical interaction in an increasingly virtual world.

When you take a child to a bookstore, you stimulate his mind and all five senses. (If taste seems a stretch, just let her have the whipped cream on your latte). There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that seems rare these days. You also make that child a crucial part of the place where he lives, supporting it and helping it grow.

Best of all, these things happen in a guise that to the child is sheer magic. On the shelves of a bookstore sit gateways into whole new worlds. Children go into bookstores—but they come back out having journeyed somewhere else entirely.

This Saturday, December 6, 2014 is the fifth annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Whether you take your own child, a child you know, or the child inside yourself to a bookstore, together let’s build literacy, support community, and make magic happen.


 Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist and mom from the Hudson River Valley who once drove past Disney with her children en route to the nearest bookstore.

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