Code White review of Code White by Scott Britz-Cunningham

by Scott Britz-Cunningham

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Publication date: April 9, 2013
Category: medical thriller; technothriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


Summary (from the publisher):

Ali O’Day, a dedicated young neurosurgeon, might have a Nobel Prize in her future—if she can survive the next eleven hours.

Under the glare of live television cameras—and with her lover, Dr. Richard Helvelius, and her estranged husband, Kevin, both looking on—Ali is about to implant a revolutionary mini-computer into the brain of a blind boy. If it works, he will see again. But someone wants to stop her triumph. No sooner has she begun to operate than the hospital pagers crackle with the chilling announcement, “CODE WHITE.” A bomb has been found in the medical center.

But this is no ordinary bomb—and no ordinary bomber. As minutes tick off toward the deadline, Ali suspects that a vast, inhuman intellect lies behind the plot—and that she herself may be the true ransom demand.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Code White is a debut novel that brings a new, powerful voice to the medical thriller genre. Written by physician-scientist Scott Britz-Cunningham, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School, Code White is the best hospital-based medical thriller I’ve read in some time.

Compared to the explosion of science-themed thrillers (especially indies) that I’ve seen in the past few years, hospital-based medical thrillers are relatively rare. Britz-Cunningham’s book serves the genre well, delivering an insider’s level of accurate medical detail, a female Muslim protagonist with more character depth than most thriller heroines, and a double dose of SciFi-level technology in the form of an experimental brain implant designed to restore a child’s sight PLUS an artificial intelligence-type entity named Odin.

Set inside a Chicago hospital, Code White begins on the day of an historic medical experiment. Neurosurgeons Ali O’Day and her mentor/lover (ooo, ignore those pesky institutional guidelines about relationships between bosses and employees) are being interviewed and filmed in the OR by a TV morning news crew about the surgery they’re about to perform. This news media format allows the author to fill in a lot of backstory about the experiment and the characters. I understand the necessity but the scene did feel a bit forced to me. Readers who share my feeling should plow on as the book will capture you with its page-turning appeal. I loved one bit of the author that came through in this scene: Ali O’Day worries about trying to explain her science to a mass audience. This is a challenge for writers of science thrillers, and for all working scientists who must communicate technically complex ideas to listeners who don’t have the level of scientific background to appreciate all the details.

The surgery proceeds while things start to happen outside the OR. Readers are introduced to the delightful Harry Lewton, the hospital’s chief of security. Harry brings common sense and compassion to his job, getting not only the reader’s affection but better results than the rigid FBI agent who arrives at the hospital along with the bomb threat. For the first half of the book, some mystery hangs over the nature and source of the bomb threat. This mystery is dispelled rather early in the story. The author must rely on other sources of tension to keep the reader engaged.

A noteworthy subplot to this book is Islam. Ali O’Day immigrated to the West from a Muslim family, and her life experiences are important in the story. Britz-Cunningham shows insight into Muslim culture and sensibilities from the perspective of both a progressive/Westernized Muslim and a radical fundamentalist that makes for interesting reading.

But this isn’t a story about Islamic terrorists. It’s about a woman, her loves, her weaknesses, her zeal. It’s about advanced medical care (with plenty of detail, including descriptions of neurosurgery and other medical procedures that will either intrigue or bore depending on the reader’s preferences) and about artificial intelligence and the fusion of man and machine. Odin, the AI character in Code White, is derivative of many other sentient programs in fiction, reminiscent of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey and multiple episodes of the original Star Trek. The impact of this “character” isn’t its originality, but rather the way Odin’s story intersects with Ali’s story in the gripping final pages of Code White.

Code White easily earned 5 biohazards for excellent medical content.  I give it 3 1/2 stars overall. I felt compelled to read this book swiftly, which is a good thing for a thriller, but am holding back on a full 4 star rating. Code White has all the elements of both plot and character that a 4 star science thriller should, yet somehow the emotional pull of them came up a little short. I think the reason is so much of the emotional action is told in either flashback or as backstory, which robs it of some of its punch.

Code White is Britz-Cunningham’s debut thriller. He has written his next novel and I look forward to reading it.

Unique words: AVM arteriovenous malformation; Spetzler Martin scale; axon; 12 gauge needle; catheter; C arms; fluoroscope; butyl-cyanoacrylate

If you like stories about a hospital bomb threat, read CJ Lyons’ Critical Condition.
If you like stories about sentient AI, read Mark Alpert’s Extinction.

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.