Eco-disaster looms

The Doomsday Genie by Frank Ryan

Ian Brooks 13 April 2008

Body count: Ryan's latest novel pulls no punches

Even the most ardent atheist can express pantheistic misgivings about “meddling with nature”

There are four omegas. Each is a perceived WMD threat. Omega #1 is nuclear. Omega #2 and Omega #4 are radiation and chemical, respectively. This one – Omega #3 – is biological. So reads the blurb on the back of Frank Ryan’s latest thriller The Doomsday Genie, a fast-paced thriller about a small group of scientists working against the clock to save the world from a nano-engineered bioweapon capable of killing anything in its path.

Nowadays it seems that terrorists are so concerned with attacking major airlines with incendiary shampoo and exploding shoes that they’ve forgotten about dumping nerve gas into our metro systems. Most of us will, I’m sure, remember the hysterical weeks and months that followed the attacks on New York City and Washington DC in 2001. Estimates rang in our ears of the effects of the seemingly imminent release of nerve gas into the New York City or London subway systems. Of course, no one mentioned that all it needed was a strong breeze or bright sunshine to cut any damage exponentially. I remember another threat being parlayed around by a fear-mongering media was nerve toxins (undefined, of course) being introduced into our water supply. Perhaps Al Qaeda had been reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Just as the generation that grew up in the Fifties and Sixties feared imminent nuclear war, so have the generations of the post-Cold War era Eighties and Nineties lived with the threat of chemical and biological weapons. I clearly remember Saddam Hussein’s nerve gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. Horrific pictures of suffocated children were resurrected as publicity for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to help justify our attack in light of their hidden caches of deadly chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons first saw major deployment in the First World War. However, for every casualty inflicted, a ton of mustard gas had to be released. Although small consolation to those affected, in the cold hard logic of war, chemical weapons just aren’t effective. Biological weapons also invoke great fear. The anthrax “attacks” that followed in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center added great fuel to the fires of terrorism. However, out of 26 reported anthrax events, only a handful were corroborated and only five people died. Again, faced with the cold clear logic of warfare, it just isn’t an effective way to kill people. Invoke terror, it most certainly does, but bring a large industrialized nation to its knees? Hardly.

Despite rationally dismissing these threats, however, there is still something horrific about the thought of a biological attack. This likely stems from our innate fear of contagion and disease. Ancient Greek and Roman historians report decomposing corpses being hurled, via catapult, from cities under siege into enemy army encampments in order to bring about plagues of dysentery or cholera. Note how even in non-zombie horror flicks such as 28 Days Later, “the infected” still have a very zombiesque look about them.

But I think there’s another facet to our modern fear of biological warfare. Something taps into our collective consciousness – even the most ardent atheist can express pantheistic misgivings about “meddling with nature”. Mother Nature has got it right by default; after all, we’re here, aren’t we? To mess with the “natural order” of things is to invite her wrath. Thus we have the Fourth Estate blaring fear-mongering nonsense about “Frankenfoods”, and in doing so managing to stifle any chance at meaningful dialogue. The majority of these issues neatly sidestep the fact that we as a species have been genetically modifying our crops and cattle since the dawn of agriculture. It’s just that nowadays we can do it faster in a lab.

From HG Wells’ alien invaders succumbing to the common cold, to the Cold War era fears of astrobiotics in Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, through to Stephen King’s global weaponised flu pandemic in The Stand, this evolving threat has provided a rich vein for great exploratory literature. Now, scientist and New York Times bestselling author, Frank Ryan, ably steps up to write the next chapter of this ongoing struggle. Nanotechnology has created a generation of scientists striving within a new industry to be the first to market new nano-inventions with the promise of untold wealth for new cures, devices and commodities. It is right to fear a loosening of moral and ethical standards in such a commercial environment. The first fiction I read that explored this theme was Michael Crichton’s unintentionally risible Prey. It was a distinct pleasure to see Ryan deal with similar issues in a much more sensible, and much more horrific, way.

Set in alternative present/near future America, The Doomsday Genie is the story of the scientists, physicians and government officials who struggle to understand and cure a mysterious plague that kills all living things that come in contact with it – plant or animal. Anyone worrying about the aforementioned dictum that chemical and biological weapons are not effective due to low casualty number can rest easy: the casualty rate in this book is terrifying in itself. I felt a little overwhelmed at first as I was introduced to a bewildering array of characters from across the continent, as well as their families, their pets, their hopes and dreams. But it soon becomes clear that pretty much everyone is going to die, and horribly, so one is able to relax and just let the flood of images wash over. Ryan’s ability to give the characters’ brief lives some sense of meaning is an accomplishment that certainly adds to the horror of their deaths. An unfortunate side effect was that I occasionally had to re-read sections to remind myself who certain more long-lived characters were, and what they did, so accustomed was I to everyone dropping dead within a few pages of being introduced.

In The Doomsday Genie, two scientists, Will Grant, the Director of the Special Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Kay McCann, Professor of Evolutionary Botany at Berkley, are forced together by fate and necessity, finding themselves working together from different directions to solve the mystery of the plague consuming America. Amongst other things, clues from McCann’s back-story are what gave me the hint that the story was set in the near future. A musical reference alludes to McCann being only 37 in 2008. This does seem a little young to be a full professor given the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that the average age for the first independent grant award is now 41. Or perhaps this alternative America has much friendlier promotion and tenure rules for women with families. Either way, the pathos of the isolation that McCann and Grant feel is enhanced by their troubled relationships with their children. It is this forced isolation, along with the horrendous working hours they endure, that leads inevitably to romantic entanglement. This too is handled deftly by Ryan, who doesn’t feel the need to embarrass himself or his readers with gratuitous sex scenes. Somewhat like old Bogart movies, it’s the subtle smile the next morning that lets you know what happened the night before.

On top of all the faced-paced action revolving around the scientists and government officials trying to save the world, we also have sub-plots involving hitmen and mysterious strangers. Ryan really does ramp up the Hollywood to bring us a true modern thriller. Moreover, the science behind The Doomsday Genie is well constructed and imaginative. This novel, now gone mainstream, was originally produced as print-on-demand (POD); apparently no publisher would pick it up due to the science content and scientist protagonists. To be honest, this strikes me as ludicrous. I think it more likely that over-worked editors pigeonholed the book before they read it. The science is never overwhelming, and although the science is integral to the plot, it doesn’t matter if you fail to grasp some of the more technical details; Ryan ensures you’ll know what you need to know by the time the final exam is set. Furthermore, one can use the magnificent CGI front cover image by Ryan’s long term artistic collaborator, Mark Salwowski, to see what the mysterious plague entity actually looks like. Ryan’s scientific scene-setting is thorough as well. It is likely that the closest most readers will have been to a biosafety lab is watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or movies like Outbreak. With careful attention to detail and feeling no need unduly embellish (unlike some authors one could mention) what is already an awe-inspiring environment, he takes us inside the dangerous world of CDC level pathogenic research: the places the plagues are studied.

Related information

You can buy The Doomsday Genie from Amazon.