Part of a continuing series here at ScienceThrillers where I put the spotlight on new authors who are part of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Class.
I’m delighted that a few days before ThrillerFest VII begins in New York, I get to feature a fellow ITW Debut author who has written a science thriller about one of my favorite frightening real-life topics: the secret biological weapons program of the former Soviet Union, and what happened to it after the collapse of the Soviet empire.
In today’s post, author Liese Sherwood-Fabre talks about what led her to write Saving Hope, a new thriller based on the true story of Dr. Ken Alibek, a Soviet biowarfare specialist who defected to the West:
When I was working in Russia, one of my colleagues shared a revelation she had during a workshop for women on employment opportunities. At one point, she told them, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist—” and stopped herself. Her participants actually were rocket scientists.
Such cases were very common throughout the former Soviet Union in the mid-1990s when I was there. With the Union’s fall, the Russian government wasn’t able to maintain all the military, civilian, and university research facilities, and many top-notch scientists found themselves unemployed. Even those who retained their positions might go for months without a salary check. I read of one major regional hospital that tried to pay their medical staff in manure. Through an elaborate bartering process common between companies back then, the regional government had received the manure as a tax payment and offered it instead of actual cash to the hospital staff. The doctors refused and got nothing.
In that kind of economic environment, what’s a highly-skilled research scientist to do? For some, the answer was to sell themselves or their wares to the highest bidder.
In his book Biohazard, Dr. Ken Alibek describes a number of countries who recruited former Soviet Union scientists to conduct biological and nuclear research and development abroad, including in North Korea, Iran, China, and Cuba. Western countries were aware of these employment efforts and initiated programs to help the scientists and facilities to retool and reinvent themselves—everything from bio-engineering better potatoes for French fries to using lasers to create designs inside acrylic paperweights.
Selling trinkets at a market, however, does not provide the same income as a single vial of a freeze-dried virus. Dr. Alibek also discusses the proliferation of private pharmaceutical companies in Russia and the other former Soviet republics offering previously well-guarded agents for sale. Many of these materials, or the information to produce and store them, could be easily carried out of the country.
I first learned of the enticements being offered to those with such skills through a 1998 New Yorker magazine article and knew I had the basis for a thriller. All the pieces were there—weapons of mass destruction, conflicting governments, and those in the middle simply struggling to survive. I took as my main character an unemployed microbiologist who was also a mother. Her daughter Nadezhda (or Hope) has a heart condition not treatable in Russia, and she becomes willing to do anything to save her daughter’s life–even working in Iran.
Weaving together actual facts from Dr. Alibek’s insights into the history and state of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons program as well as my own observations of Russian culture and life created Saving Hope and Alexandra Pavlova’s story.
About Saving Hope:
In one of Siberia’s formerly closed cities, Alexandra Pavlova, an unemployed microbiologist, struggles to save her daughter’s life. When she turns to Vladimir, her oldest friend, for help, she’s drawn into Russia’s underworld. His business dealings with the Iranians come to the attention of Sergei Borisov, an FSB (formerly the KGB) agent. Alexandra finds herself joining forces with Sergei to stop the export of a deadly virus in a race to save both her daughter and the world.
“An alpha female heroine and a tantalizing premise that toys with the most basic of emotions—a parent’s drive to save their child. Nothing frilly or fancy, just good old-fashioned, gimmick-free storytelling. And what could be better than that.”
—Steve Berry, New York Times’ bestselling author of the Cotton Malone series and The Romanov Prophecy.
“Liese Sherwood-Fabre has concocted an extremely well-written story that grabs you from the beginning and holds you relentlessly through all the twists and turns until the unexpected end.”
—Paula G. Paul, winner of the Willa award