Review of “Spiral” by Paul McEuen

This book got quite a bit of good advance publicity. “Booklist,” the book review magazine of the American Library Association, named it as one of their Top Ten Crime Novel Debuts of the Year, as well as one of their Top Ten (overall) Crime Novels – a rare occurrence, they contend (May 1, 2011 issue of “Booklist”). The book didn’t knock me out, however.

The author is a professor of physics at Cornell and Director of Cornell’s Kavli Institute for Nanoscale Science. Thus he is able to pack his story with intriguing scientific facts and to fashion conceivable threats to humanity associated with nanotechnology.

Nota Bene: Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve the ability to see and to control individual atoms and molecules. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. To illustrate:

  • There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch
  • A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
  • On a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometer, then one meter would be the size of the Earth.

The significance of being able to see and work with particles on such a small scale is that the materials’ properties actually change significantly from what they exhibit at larger scales. This is the size scale where what we generally think of as the laws of physics gives way to quantum effects (sometimes known as “spooky behavior”). Thus, when particle size is made to be nanoscale, properties such as melting point, fluorescence, electrical conductivity, magnetic permeability, and chemical reactivity change as a function of the size of the particle! The discovery of these different properties has led to significantly enhanced applications in medicine, imaging, computing, printing, chemical catalysis, materials synthesis, and many other fields.

[For a wonderful introduction to nanotechnology, the Government has a great site, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, including the superb Nanotechnology 101 here.]

I found the scientific aspect of the book quite interesting (although sometimes a bit abstruse, as when a few details were not fully explained). But when it came to other plot elements, the story is quite predictable and even sub-par in some aspects.

Liam Connor is an 86-year-old Nobel laureate who is a mycologist studying fungi, but he is also adept in genetics and nano-engineering. He works tirelessly in a lab at Cornell tending his giant collection of fungi (humorously dubbed The Gardens of Decay). To facilitate the work, he designed tiny silicon helper robots called MicroCrawlers. He also has a handsome and divorced assistant, Cornell physicist Jake Sterling, and a beautiful and brilliant divorced granddaughter, Maggie (who has an intelligent, earnest son, Dylan). Gee, wonder where that all is going?

Sixty-four years earlier, in 1946, Liam became privy to the existence of “the Uzumaki,” a spiral-shaped fungal biowarfare pathogen developed in Japan that was highly virulent. At the war’s end, only seven cylinders of this deadly toxin were left, and Liam came into custody of one of them after wrestling for it with the Japanese officer, Hitoshi Kitano. Kitano, a sadist who had been in charge of testing the Uzumaki on live subjects, was trying to release the pathogen as part of a last “kamikaze” type act, but he was thwarted by Liam. Liam was supposed to get rid of the cylinder, but Kitano knew better.

Fade back to the present, in 2010. Liam is tortured and killed, and no one knows why (except of course we the readers). But soon Jake, Maggie, and Dylan are also in danger, as is, needless to say, the entire planet.

Discussion: The ruthless female Asian assassin of the story is quite robotic – a little too much so, I thought, to be credible. Kitano is similarly inhuman and obsessed. Perhaps the author thought the only way to make such evil characters believable would be to blame the Japanese traditions of kamikaze and Seppuku. I still found it racist and objectionable.

The author’s fashioning of his villains as robotic in behavior is interesting though in a different sense. I got the impression he was making a statement about the ironic interchangeability between humans and robots: the villains, at least, are definitely more robotic than the MicroCrawlers, actual robots who seem so cute and cuddly that Dylan has named them all.

Evaluation: Some of this thriller was too predictable, and some was a bit over the top. However, the author’s passion for science comes through clearly, and he provides a lot of background info as well as fun facts about fungi. It helps give something extra to the book.

Rating: 3/5

Published by The Dial Press, 2011

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12 Responses to Review of “Spiral” by Paul McEuen

  1. I hate stereotypes, especially Asian stereotypes. I think I’ll pass on this one.

  2. Julie P. says:

    I can see that I might like this one but it’s just not calling out to me enough.

  3. sandynawrot says:

    Eh. I’m not sure the science would be enough to overcome the predictability and the robotic Asian. I’m actually really digging Michael Harvey these days for mystery thrillers…completely unpredictable (never know what the hell is going on), always includes interesting factoids about whatever the book is about (Chicago fire, man-made super flu etc.), and the characters are pretty unique. Plus, of course, there is Nesbo too. Can’t get enough of him.

  4. zibilee says:

    This book sounds sort of strange, but also very interesting. I am very curious about the female assassin now, and about all the fungi information. I think that perhaps this book might work for me, but am a little tweaked to hear that it’s a touch predictable. It sounds there is a lot of promise that is not tapped into. Very wonderful and thoughtful review, Jill!

  5. What a fantastic review — I love the elements you broke down and talked about and you hit on things that I’d like care about/be interested in/bothered by — nice. I think this might be too science-y for me — my eyes glazed a bit at the nano-ness — but I’ve got a nerdy geek friend who would probably enjoy this.

  6. I think there’s probably too much science in this one for me.

  7. epkwrsmith says:

    I appreciate your book review format as well 🙂 so thorough and detailed 🙂 For me, the science actually turns me off of this one…give me something with historical research, ancient documents, etc. and I’m your gal for hours and hours and hours…but I don’t think I would stick with this one 😦

  8. Staci says:

    I don’t think this one is for me at all….but I always love reading your reviews because I get to add cool words to my vocab!! 😀

  9. Barbara says:

    Sorry, Jill. I think this one would put me right to sleep. If you go to Ithaca, prepare to climb hills. I always thought people there, especially Cornell students, must have one leg shorter than the other to walk around steep hills. Beautiful area though.

  10. Jenners says:

    I would think you would have to live in a cold Northern land to be dubbed “The Next Steig Larrsson.” And I love that he names characters after his dogs. At least they have personal names and there aren’t characters like Fido, Fluffy and Woofy Boy.

  11. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m always looking for a good thriller, but I don’t want it to be predictable. I do like the idea of using his dogs names in the book though!

  12. Aggelos says:

    The female assassin is badass,reminds us anime girls with gun˙plus there’s this short report about her past in BlackWater,where two of her partners attempted to rape her.She must’ve felt so betrayed,I understand about why she punished them,and about why she fled way. I take it that McEwen has flaws as a writer.,because the girl really was worth a better treatment and two more books!

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