Fiction: Attack of the killer fungi

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Philip Ball applauds physicist Paul McEuen's debut thriller about a madness-inducing mould.

Spiral: A Novel

Paul McEuen Dial Press/Headline: 2011. 320 pp. $25/£19.99 ISBN: 9780385342117

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One of my more humdrum obligations as a science commentator was to read Michael Crichton's Prey, his 2002 thriller based on the premise of nanotechnological robot swarms run amok. As a novice in this genre, I found myself comparing his characters' psychological implausibility to the illogical quirks of figures from myth and legend. But with guns.

Crichton made millions with his formula; Spiral deserves to do the same for Paul McEuen, a physicist at Cornell University in New York. His debut novel is more enjoyable and more palatable than Crichton's and boasts impeccable science.

Even so, nothing in Spiral bucks the thriller formula. Every scene is tailored for the screen, and the film rights have already been sold. The dialogue reflects how people speak in blockbusters, not in real life, and the story has the familiar cast: the vulnerable but plucky mother, the ruthless assassin, the sadistic billionaire, the child in peril, and so on. There's the race against time, the apocalyptic threat. And, just as films like this offer a great ride when done well, so too does Spiral.

The fictional tale begins at the end of the Second World War, when young Irish microbiologist Liam Connor is brought on board a US warship to witness the effects of a devastating biological weapon developed by the Japanese: a fungal infection called the Uzumaki that induces hallucinations and madness, and is ultimately fatal. Connor ends up hiding away a tiny vial of the stuff, wrestled from the Japanese engineer Hitoshi Kitano who was responsible for developing it.

Sixty years later, Connor is an octogenarian with a Nobel prize, and still in active research at Cornell. Unknown to the authorities, he has for decades been secretly searching for the cure that he is sure will one day be needed for the Uzumaki. Aware that a cure would turn the deadly fungus into a potential weapon by conferring protection only on some, he is determined to keep his work from the US military. Then he is found dead at the bottom of a gorge, apparently having thrown himself off a bridge to escape from a mysterious woman caught on security cameras. His coded last message to his colleague Jake Sterling, his granddaughter Maggie and her son Dylan makes them the only people who can prevent a global outbreak of the killer fungus. But who is behind the fiendish scheme to release it?

You can see a lot of the plot coming — the denouement even involves the old chestnut of who gets to the gun first. But that doesn't detract from the page-turning quality. It is a delight to see how McEuen — an expert in carbon-nanotube physics and nano-electronics — has marshalled his knowledge to kit out the technical plot devices. Nanotechnology, microbiology, information technology and synthetic biology are all brought into play in a convincing, unforced manner. Devotees of scientific trends will recognize many elements, from genetically engineered oscillating fluorescence to microfluidic labs-on-chips.

McEuen shows that the imagination of an inventive scientist is far more interesting than that of a writer who has merely done his homework. In his use of science he trumps Crichton and many other novelists who like to spice their narratives with cutting-edge science. I confess that my interest finds less purchase with square-jawed, stolid heroes like Jake, whose physical prowess and ex-army credentials are carefully established in preparation for gutsy displays. But that is the genre, and Jake is less tiresomely bland than the wooden leads in the books of Dan Brown and Crichton.

A more appealing hero is Cornell University itself, which enjoys a touching love letter here from the author. But, as ever, the stars of the show are the villains: the microcrawlers that scrabble ominously across the book's cover — microelectromechanical devices with a seriously bad attitude.

Next time, McEuen should allow himself to push harder at the genre's boundaries. And I do hope there will be a next time, if he can escape the lab bench and the jaws of Hollywood.

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