SynBio book review of SYNBIO by Leslie Alan Horvitz.


(30th percentile of SciThri)

Publication date: July 1, 2014
Category: science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5; what does this mean?):


Summary (from amazon listing):

Scientists now have the capacity to hack into DNA the same way that hackers can infiltrate computer systems, manipulating organisms by inserting new DNA or exploiting genetic mutations that can trigger fatal heart attacks or induce bipolar illness or Alzheimer’s. These “biohackers” as they’re known, can perform their experiments in their kitchens using equipment purchased for next to nothing on eBay. Most of these biohackers are like Seth Stringer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who’s made a name for himself exploring the frontiers of genetic manipulation. He’s young, brash, ambitious, and obsessed with his work, but also a little naive. When his former professor Marcus Adair holds out the possibility of coming to London and going to work for an international pharmaceutical company called Chimera, he jumps at the chance. He can make good money and cement his relationship with his girlfriend, who has misgivings about his future prospects as a breadwinner. He fails to realize until too late that the principal business of Chimera isn’t the manufacture of generic drugs but the production of lethal genetic products for well-heeled clients. These are used to assassinate or debilitate presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs using their own DNA against them-a method that not only makes it difficult to identify the perpetrator (a cold virus can deliver the engineered DNA) but makes it almost impossible to determine that a crime has been committed in the first place.

ScienceThrillers review:

I really wanted to love this book.

SynBio starts with a fantastic near-future premise. In SynBio, scientists can readily sequence individual people’s genomes (true). They can identify sequence variations that cause susceptibility to certain diseases (true). They can then design and deliver some kind of agent that will specifically trigger that individual’s disease susceptibility and kill them without a trace (not true in reality, but plausible SciThri).

Seth Stringer is a talented young scientist desperate for cash and recognition. He is unknowingly lured into a complex international scheme to apply his biohacking talents to the perfect murders of people in power. Simultaneously in the book, the reader follows the story of the other protagonist, a deeply flawed yet sympathetic Eugenie Tattersall, who “harvests” the targets’ DNA for sequencing. Seth and Eugenie’s paths cross later in the book.

Author Horvitz clearly knows a lot about science, and he uses that knowledge effectively in this story. There is plenty of it but not too much for SciThri fans (this is what we want, after all). The science is grounded in reality even when it gets a bit woolly with the details of how these personalized biological assassinations take place. Horvitz also writes good scenes and has created two reasonably well-developed characters in Seth and Eugenie. In outline form, most of the plot works.

But a novel is more than the sum of its parts, and as a whole, SynBio ultimately disappoints. The story starts well, despite the confusing use of a secondary character in the opening pages. About a third of the way in, things start to bog down. This reader felt that the climax and resolution should be coming a lot sooner than the page count suggested. Indeed, at about halfway through, the scenes felt repetitive, the overall plot not advancing much.

In the final third, a tough editor or critical reader was needed. A “twist” involving a federal agent seemed transparent to me from the start, and I found it implausible that Seth didn’t see it either. The book becomes ambitious in its global scale, but the writing doesn’t hold up. Lots of implausible small details culminate in a lengthy and unbelievable capture and escape sequence in North Korea. While the “travel” writing is obviously well-researched, the events were unbelievable (both in terms of practicality and motive) and unnecessary.

The ending failed to redeem the fraying narrative. Loose ends, such as Seth’s ex-girlfriend, are left untied. What should have been a satisfying exposure of evil falls flat, and the protagonists’ own story is left unresolved.

FCC disclaimer: A free digital copy of this book was given to me for review via NetGalley. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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