Saturday, April 2, 2011

McEuen’s ostentatious talent abundantly on display

by Paul McEuen

Two of my very favorite things are auspicious debut novels and really smart techno-thrillers. Kudos to physicist Paul McEuen, Spiral is both. The novel opens with a gripping prologue set in March 1946 on a U.S. Navy ship in the South Pacific. World War II is over, but the Japanese have reserved one devastating weapon for their endgame.

In that prologue we are introduced to biologist Dr. Liam Connor, who saves not only the day, but perhaps the world. At 22, the Irishman is at the very beginning of a prodigious career. We next meet him 64 years later. Now the 86-year-old Nobel laureate is one of the most distinguished and beloved professors at Cornell. And he’s still vital as well, actively engaged in research that spans from his specialization in fungi to the very frontiers of nanotechnology.
“Though Liam was a biologist, he loved the wonderful precision of all this technology, the miniature landscapes of almost impossibly intricate detail that were created…Liam believed that a second wave was coming—one even bigger than the information revolution. When the technologies of the information age were applied to biology, life would become an engineering discipline. Using tools such as microfluidic labs-on-a-chip, PCR machines, and assemblers such as the Micro-Crawlers, you’d be able to make living cells the way you made computer chips, process DNA like so many ones and zeros. He was incredibly excited. He thought that in five years he’d be making fungi from scratch.”
Ah, doesn’t it make you want to grab a textbook! No? Maybe it’s just me. And, relax, I pulled a very technical quote because clearly I love that stuff. The novel is so very satisfyingly smart, but it’s also fully accessible to any lay reader. Dr. McEuen must be a pretty impressive lecturer himself, and he’s writing about a world and subjects he knows intimately.

Now, a lot of gee whiz science does not a thriller make. Thrillers require plot and pacing and character, and McEuen supplies them all in spades. I’m sorry, don’t get too attached to lovely Liam, as his death—well, murder—is the main catalyst of a plot that centers on his scientist granddaughter, Maggie, teaming up with Jake Sterling, the young nanotech expert who was Liam’s close associate. While at first they’re trying to understand why Liam appears to have killed himself, soon they’re unraveling clues Liam left from beyond the grave. Their path of discovery is engrossing, and the threat they uncover is terrifying.

I haven’t really told you much at all. Why should I? The pleasure is in the twists and turns along the way. The plot is there. The pacing is excellent. I flew through the novel in no time at all. And perhaps most impressive, all things considered, is McEuen’s deft touch with his characters. Not only does he do an excellent job fleshing out his central characters, he’s populated the novel with rich, colorful, and interesting secondary characters.

As I said, it’s a freakin’ auspicious debut!  I know that Dr. McEuen has a fairly heavy-duty day job as a physicist and professor.  I can only hope that he’s able to continue to carve out time for fiction.

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