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Running on empty

Petroplague by Amy Rogers

Ian Brooks 28 October 2011

Adrenalin-fuelled: detail from the cover

If nature can do something so awful to us with something so innocuous, what horrors could man inflict upon himself through deliberate manipulation?

Editor's note: This review contains minor spoilers.

Some of my favourite works of lab lit are those that strike a balanced chord against real-life events. Although science as fiction often needs to over-play real life to create dramatic tension, it is possible to create a palpable sense of realism even whilst exploring the fantastic.

An easy target is to play on the natural human fear of contagion and loss of control. One need look no further than the position that the bubonic plague inhabits in collective Western consciousness. Recent genetic sequencing of the Yersinia pestis bacteria reveals that until the early 14th Century, it was a benign soil bacterium. A random mutation led to massive pathogenicity, almost total lethality and the subsequent devastation of Europe by the “Black Death”. If nature can do something so awful to us with something so innocuous, what horrors could man inflict upon himself through deliberate manipulation?

Amy Rogers, PhD, a scientist and novelist, takes this tested trope and adds a new twist in her disaster epic Petroplague, where the contagion and parasitism is not of our bodies, but of our culture.

Imagine a very real and not-so-distant future where there is no more oil. There might be a few strategic reserves, and deep deposits, but these are either too expensive to harvest or are in private hands – the military, the government, the ultra-rich elite. To some this represents an opportunity to return a simpler, rural, possibly pre-industrial state of being, a non-existent utopia where we live off the land. To the realists it means an unimaginable world – no oil means no fuel, no plastics, few modern drugs, food shortages, crises of every sort. Frighteningly, this world will one day exist. Some estimates have put us past peak oil production and into a decline of diminishing returns. But as surely as this real oil-free future approaches, we’ll have time to adjust. There will be time to develop to new methods of generating fuels for our vehicles, to find new ways to synthesize the long carbon polymers we need so desperately. We’ll adapt and adjust; we’re humans and that's what we do. But what if there isn’t time? What if in one catastrophic moment we lost everything? This is the dystopian vision in Roger’s book.

Scientists Dr. Robert Chen and his graduate student Christina Gonzalez are working with a petrochemical company to engineer bacteria capable of extracting hydrogen gas from shale oil deposits. The hydrogen can be used as fuel in clean-energy vehicles and the mining process won’t blight millions of hectares of shale sites. As fiction this sounds too good to be true, but as Dr. Rogers explains in the expansive postscript to the novel, the underlying processes are real science, and real big business. And as all lovers of good fiction know, big science and big business mean big trouble. When eco-terrorists destroy a test site where Dr. Chen and Ms. Gonzalez are testing their bacteria, they unwittingly release it into the wild.

What happens next is a thesis in epic movie-scale writing as bacteria start converting all the oil they come into contact with into acetic acid and hydrogen gas. Once the terrorists realize the possible scale of the destruction they can wreak, a new plan kicks into motion. In chat rooms across the world a cadre of dedicated and misguided eco-warriors plan to spread this contagion far and wide. After all, why stop at reducing California to an oil-free paradise when you can poison deposits around the country, or even the world? But there is one vital problem the terrorists have overlooked. The ‘catch’, beautifully and slowly played out in the book, is the realization that simply converting billions of barrels of oil into gas right along the hemisphere’s largest active fault line might not be such a great plan.

As a scientist, I found the characters well written and believable. Ms. Gonzalez is, like most graduate students I’ve met and mentored, somewhat idealistic, but also deeply driven. She is proud of her skills, but sometimes lacks confidence in her abilities. Her coming-of-age as a scientist through the punishing and frequently frustrating grind of lab work under pressure offers a glimpse to non-scientists of what it means to earn one’s doctorate and become a scientist. Her mentor, Dr. Chen, cares deeply about his science and his students, but Rogers leaves us wondering about how altruistic his motives are in the face of the enormous payoffs waiting for the person who develops the fuel cell energy that plays the books subplot.

The other major players in the book are also carefully crafted. Christina’s eco-warrior-wannabe sister, River, and her hapless boyfriend Mickey want to live in the simple black-and-white white world of conspiracy-theorists. The facts are either inconvenient or simply too hard to grasp. Rogers asks Christina to spend a lot of time explaining the underlying science to her family, and through this we get a glimpse of the frustrations many scientists face when interacting with the public. It is a joy to watch the evolution of these characters as they slowly begin to grasp the real depth and complexity of the problems society faces and the necessity for detailed, careful scientific approaches instead of the callous and naïve disregard they once advocated.

Given the scale of the book and the issues it addresses, the novel occasionally reads like a Hollywood disaster screenplay. Obviously the epic scale of the crisis demands an epic backdrop, but Rogers sometimes overwhelms by telling us what we can see, instead of showing us through her writing and allowing the imagination to summon the necessary images. This is also apparent in a couple of the laboratory scenes, where infodumps of terms, techniques and details clutter already complex yet vital passages. Scientists reading will know what techniques are being used, and most won’t need the primer; non-scientists will gain little from the addition of possibly complex experimental details. In addition, as the drama builds, Ms. Gonzalez’ luck declines proportionally to her increasing confidence as a scientist. The strength of her character never wavers and she is always well written and constant, but I found myself rushing through sections as I dealt with drama-burnout that added little to the plot or story.

Despite these very slight issues, the book is a great example of lab lit in what I think of as the Crichtonesque School of epic science disaster writing. Michael Crichton was one of the first modern scientist-authors to take scientists out of the lab and make them human characters in the daily drama of their science. Andromeda Strain is an obvious early example of scientists working to the save the world from an unknown and faceless microscopic horror. Similarly I was reminded of Michael Palmer’s The Fifth Vial with its powerful and well-written female lead whose character develops throughout the course of the book, and with it our appreciation of her strength in the face of adversity. Amy Rogers has done an excellent job of not only crafting an exciting and thrilling piece of lab lit fiction, but also of offering an education in the science behind the scenes and a glimpse of a future we might face.