Other than Michael Crichton's Prey I've never read a science thriller. Why I have no idea, I love science and I definitely don't mind a good thriller, but for some reason this genre has never hit my radar. Now that I've finished Petroplague though...Well, I think that may be about to change.
Petroplague is a fascinating look at a reality we may very well find ourselves tangled within. When a university experiment in biofuel is targetted by an eco-terrorist, a chain reaction of devastating events soon follow. Designed to "eat" oil, the syntrophus bacteria (the stars of the experiment) begin to destroy the fuel supply when they're released into the Los Angeles soil, screeching life in L.A to a grinding halt. One thing this book did very well, was paint exactly how devastating this event would be. Even if, like me, you don't rely on cars for your transport, once the petrol (gasoline to those of you in the States) is contaminated, EVERYTHING is affected. It has a huge knock on effect. If you can't drive your car, catch a bus or hail a cab, how do you get to work? If you can't get to work how do shops run? If cars/trucks/buses are down, how do you get food and supplies into your area? If you have an accident, or something happens, how does an ambulance or fire engine reach you? How can people broadcast the news on any other devastating effects if they can't get around? And if there is bacteria in the fuel supply, who knows what kind of affect that could be having environmentally. Now imagine this going worldwide, imagine the efforts officials would be making to contain it so that it doesn't spread that wide. Terrifying to think of, right?
Petroplague managed to convey exactly how devastating this type of accident would be to a wide range of people very successfully by incorporating vignette chapters which focused on one of characters from around the city. Not only did this demonstrate the catastrophic possibilities of such an event, but it added an extra weight and dimension of humanity to the story. It showed people of all ages, creeds and classes struggling as a result of these loose bacteria, and how quickly chaos reigned. It never quite reached Lord of the Flies levels, but it wasn't far off. Moreover, it felt real. I could imagine reading about this in the papers, and that scared the pants off me.
In the thick of all of this chaos and panic is Christina, PhD student extraordinaire. As one of the students working on the syntrophus experiment, she finds herself a key player in trying to solve the crisis that has consumed L.A. To make matters even more difficult (as if life-saving science isn't hard enough!) there are several individuals trying to stop her, and her supervisor Dr Chen, from solving the problem. For the most part Christina is your traditional heroine. She's wicked smart, athletic, attractive, moral and responsible. She's definitely the complete package. And while I found her almost too perfect at times (and a little goody-two-shoes-y), there were enough imperfections added to her character to base her pretty close to reality. Sure she was saving the entire city almost single-handedly, but she's incredibly naive and almost thick when it comes to solutions sitting right in front of her. She also isn't immune to pain or heartbreak, and her reactions to such events are completely understandable and realistic. The balance isn't quite there though, but it was nice not to completely despise (or even dislike) the female protagonist for once!
Christina forms the focus of the story, but she's far from the only character. She's joined by her kinda spoiled eco-loving-anti-authoritarian hippy cousin River, and River's boyfriend Mickey for much of the book. These two, equal parts obnoxious, stupid and loveable, are frequently employed as the vehicles to impart the scientific data without making it too preachy, complicated or boring. Though it sometimes comes of a little cardboard-y, the discussions between Mickey, River and Christina were a clever way of informing not only non-scientific Mickey and River of the "petroplague" (the name for this devastating event) and its ramifications on everyday life, but informing the reader on the issue as well. The clarity through which the science was communicated in this book was fantastic. Not once did I feel like I was over my head or unable to comprehend what the characters were talking about. Perhaps I couldn't have joined in the scientific discussion between Christina and her supervisor Dr. Chen, but I sure as hell could have followed every word they were saying.
The success of this is due not only to author Amy Rogers successful writing, but because she knows what she's talking about. This isn't science fiction, it's a horrific tale of scientific possibility, a story of 'what if' told by an M.D PhD. While Rogers admits in the concluding pages of scientific background reading that she employed a little poetic license to speed some things up and invented a couple of causal catastrophes, much of the story is very, very real and very relevant to today's society. Not only does this make the book far more interesting than one which just makes the science up (which is always easy to spot by the way), but it makes the story that much more thrilling (and chilling). This is a reality you have to face as you read the book, this could actually happen. Sure it might not occur just the way the book describes it, but unlike your typical sci-fi or dystopian fiction, our (possible) demise is laid out in front of us and we have to recognise its potentiality.
Petroplague was a unique find. I'm not sure that I'd have picked it up if I found it in the bookstore, but I enjoyed the hell out of reading it. There were a few flaws, a few moments of bumpy or stiff dialogue and a love interest that I wasn't keen on at all, but these were small issues. Overall, this is a dynamite first novel for Amy Rogers and I look forward to fearing for my safety and longevity when I read the next book she releases.