Latest book review: Spiral by Paul McEuen

Michael Crichton died in 2008.  He was the undisputed master of tense, imaginative, un-put-downable books loaded with cutting-edge science spun just far enough into fiction to fascinate the reader without triggering complete disbelief.

Other authors have used Crichton’s techniques and themes, but debut author Paul McEuen, in his new book Spiral, is the first to produce a novel worthy of direct comparison with Crichton’s best.

Spiral

(out of 5 stars)
Year published: 2011
Category: science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from Publishers Weekly):

When Liam Connor—an 86-year-old Cornell emeritus professor of biology, a Nobel Prize winner, and pioneer in the field of nanoscience—inexplicably jumps to his death off a bridge into one of Ithaca’s gorges, the entire community is stunned, especially Connor’s granddaughter, Maggie, and his academic confidant, professor Jake Sterling. But when micro-robots—silicon and metal constructs that Connor helped create—are found in his stomach, Maggie and Jake realize that he didn’t commit suicide: he was tortured before being murdered. As they race to unravel cryptic messages Connor left behind, his ruthless killer plots to unleash an ingenious biological “doomsday weapon” with origins all the way back to WWII Japan.

REVIEW:

This is the book I’ve been waiting for. If you follow my reviews and trust my opinion, then don’t waste your time reading any further here. Go buy Spiral. Now.

The covers of many thrillers with science in their pages scream some flattering comparison to the work of Michael Crichton. Ironically, the cover of Spiral, a debut novel by Cornell University physics professor Paul McEuen, does not.

But of all the recent science thrillers I’ve read, this one really is as good as Crichton’s best.

I approached Spiral with some skepticism when I learned of it in a New York Times book review. In general, the NYTimes doesn’t review genre fiction (some believe it’s a literary snob thing…). Because the author is tied to New York and the Ivy League, I assumed the review appeared as a result of some personal connection. Maybe networking did get the book noticed by the Times, but it is a star of the thriller genre and deserves publicity.

Spiral is well-paced, brilliantly plotted, and populated by characters more interesting than most of the people who live in thriller worlds. In the opening pages, set back in 1946, we are introduced to a young Irish biologist who finds himself at the epicenter of a potentially world-changing event involving biological warfare and a fungus. His choices follow him the rest of his life. Dr. Liam Connor later becomes a Cornell professor and wins the Nobel prize. He is loved and admired, and even after his death, he is a dominant figure in the story all the way to the end.

Our (surviving) protagonists are a friend and colleague of Connor, Dr. Jake Sterling, and Professor Connor’s granddaughter and great-grandson, Maggie and Dylan Connor. The requisite romantic spark between male and female protagonists is kept mercifully subdued through most of the book. Sterling and the Connors have something that Professor Connor’s ruthless killer wants, and thus are drawn into a series of terrifying events.

In Spiral, first-time author McEuen does many things well. First and foremost is the science. This book is loaded with science, all of it fascinating, much of it unfamiliar and cutting-edge. From his choice of plague agent (a fungus, not your typical virus), to the important role of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, and a long list of techno gadgetry, the reader will eat this stuff up. My favorites? Genetically-engineered Morse code and piezoelectric gloves for typing. Plus, several not-so-techno devices that are used to great effect: a treasure hunt using coded messages; secrets from the past (including the infamous Japanese biological warfare experiments of Unit 731 during the 1930’s and 40’s in China); government conspiracies.

Technically-sophisticated readers will keep turning the pages to see what technical treat McEuen offers next.

Certain themes and images are repeatedly interlaced into the plot—nice!

All your favorite genre tricks are here: improbable action sequences, plot twists, miraculous saves, desperate gambles, cool laboratories, and more, all written well. Thrillers almost always strain our credulity. The trick is to not strain it to the breaking point. McEuen does a remarkable job of keeping all events, motivations, and consequences within the realm of believable—including the requisite miracle cure.

Spiral does contain a modestly disturbing torture scene early in the story. While I generally abhor such scenes, McEuen’s setup is so perfectly nightmarish and original without excessive gore, that I have to give it a thumb’s up.

No book is perfect. Spiral’s weaknesses:

  • Quite a few examples of “telling, not showing”, where the author writes a paragraph telling you backstory. Likewise, the opening sequence with Liam and Kitano has some of the most stilted and unrealistic dialogue I’ve seen in a book of this quality. Fortunately, the dialogue improves when the story fast-forwards to the present time.
  • The villain, a young, female, sociopathic Chinese assassin called “Orchid”, is in every way a flat stereotype.  Oh well.

SUMMARY: I loved this book.

Parent alert: appropriate, infrequent use of the F-word and other profanity; torture. No sex.

Key words (a cornucopia to choose from!): Uzumaki; primers; unit 731; Cornell; transposon; racing pigeon; defensive asymmetry; mycotoxin; fusarium; dimorphic; Green Cross; bushido; Hershey-Chase experiment; Yasukuni shrine; Babel Gene; microcrawlers; nanobots; genetic engineering; Biological Weapons Convention; Fort Detrick; Seneca Army Depot

If you love Michael Crichton: this book is for you.

If you love Cornell University: this book is for you.

If you like molecular microbiology in your fiction, you might enjoy: Petroplague by Amy Rogers

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3 Responses to Latest book review: Spiral by Paul McEuen

  1. James Aach says:

    I’ll keep Spiral in mind, as most science thrillers I find get rather silly rather quickly.

    FYI: Given current world conditions, you might want to look at this one (by me), as it profiles a nuclear plant of the same design as Fukushima having the same event (station blackout) and is written by a nuclear engineer.

    http://RadDecision.blogspot.com

    • Amy says:

      I can’t promise you won’t think Spiral gets silly. Some silliness is inherent in the genre. Can you tolerate people surviving explosions, gunshot wounds, and jumps from bridges?

      • James Aach says:

        To some extent in service of the plot. It can’t all be staring at test tubes. My pet peeve is such books where all the science / tech is at the beginning, and then it becomes nothing but explosions, etc.

        Incidentally, Lab Lit is a nice place. I have an essay there.

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