Tuesday, December 18, 2007

5 Books

It's that time of year again - festive lights, holiday smells, music, family. Of course, sometimes getting a lot of that requires the other thing this time of the year is known for: long lines at the airports, delays, layovers, crying children, extremely cranky TSA agents who don't take kindly to your traveling with a bunch of books on bioterrorism, and the definite need for some decent airplane reading material.

So without further ado, five recommendations of bioethics-related fictional books that I'd recommend to just about anyone. Some are very new, some are old, but all of them raise interesting issues wrapped in fictional fluff.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Of course, it's hard to escape the name of this book right now, since the Will Smith movie by the same name just opened to the largest December box office ever, smashing the third installment of the Lord of the Rings by several million dollars. The Smith vehicle is actually the third remake of Matheson's classic novel (the first was the 1964 movie The Last Man on Earth and the other Heston's The Omega Man), but it is, from all accounts, the most accurate.

And movies are fine and good, but the original novel is well worth reading. Yes, it's a vampire science fiction novel, but the vampires are not Lestat; there's no dripping lace and pathos here. Instead, wrapped in the horror of plague and desperation is a thoughtful look at what it means to be normal, how we define different, and what we do about it.

Written in 1954 and set in 1976, some aspects of it are dated in ways you would expect, but it holds up much better than other science fiction/horror novels of its day. If you like Heinlein, Koontz, or King - an admittedly unusual group to see bunched together - or recent zombie movies like 28 Days Later, this is a must read.

The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Yes, that Frank Herbert, who brought us the spice, also wrote one of the first books on genetically engineered bioweapons. It is one of several books that I will pull off the bookshelf every year, just to reread and enjoy. Given it's content, it's probably strange to admit that this book is like comfort food.

And what is it's content? A very simple premise. What if women were an endangered species? What if someone, a renegade scientist driven mad, decided all women must die, and genetically created the virus to do it?

What would happen to society? How would religion, culture, politics shift and change in the face of the decimation of half the world's population - and the potential demise of the entire human race?

The book discusses all of this, but also addresses the potential for anyone with a modicum of skill to create disease. It takes a very precise epidemiological approach to distribution and spread of the virus, where are the vulnerabilities in our society that would allow infection to race unchecked, and perhaps most importantly - what in the world do you do in that sort of nightmare situation?

It's a thriller, a horror, a science fiction book - but also a mystery, so I'm afraid if I said anymore, I'd spoil it for everyone. But I can't think of a more ringing endorsement than "I read this at least once a year."

The Footprints of God by Greg Iles
How many fictional books, off the top of your head, can you think of that feature, as their main character, a professor of ethics? Chances are, if you haven't read this book, your answer is simple: none. (And if I'm wrong in this, please let me know.) And on the face of it, it's kind of understandable why: an academic isn't terribly interesting, and I'm not certain watching any of us sit around our offices and work, day in and out, would be at all fascinating. But Iles manages to pull this off, in the compelling character David Tennant, professor of ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School. Dr. Tennant is working on for the government on a top secret research project known as Trinity. They are attempting to build a quantum-level supercomputer, run by a neurological operating system.

And when that neurological operating system wakes up, everything goes to hell, and it's up to the ethicist to make it right.

But beyond a simple thriller in the vein of National Treasure, where an academic must step out of their comfort zone and become a hero, Iles infuses The Footprints of God with sophisticated philosophical and ethical questions about the nature of existence, man, and God.

Next by Michael Crichton
Until about 3 months ago, a list like this wouldn't have included any Crichton books for me. I have been - and still am - a fan of Crichton's earlier work, from the classic The Andromeda Strain to more contemporary works like Jurassic Park. But somewhere along the way, he segued into a thriller-esque genre more remniscent of Koontz-ean horror novels or the thrillers by Clive Cussler than the interesting technological and medical books he'd written in the past. Apparently my discontent grumblings were heard by someone, because the last few Crichton books have been a return to his roots, of technology, medicine, and the potential for great achievements and great harm they have.

It was a tossup between this book and Prey, but ultimately Next swayed me. Primarily because I read it on the plane this morning, I think - devoured it, really, reading the entire thing on the flight between Albany and Chicago. I simply couldn't put the book down. It has a complicated story arc of many more characters than you typically see in a fictional book, and the size of the book reflects this. Each story is slowly woven in to the stories around it, until everything merges together into a satisfying, yet simultaneously not over the top, finale.

At it's core, Next is about genetic engineering, corporate politics, and the history of research medicine. He very, very skillfully weaves in fact with fiction - in fact, the disclaimer says that everything in the book is fictional, except the stuff that isn't - and many people might simply assume it's all fiction.

What all? Crichton takes us on a history of the Bayh-Dole act, John Moore's spleen, the UCLA genetic empire, patenting genes and the race to patent, media sensationalism (such as the oft-repeated fear that blonde's will become extinct), the concept of single gene causes for anything from God to gay, decoding the human genome, gene banks, tissue theft, illegal bone harvests - the list goes on. Chances are good, if it's biotech and there has been a story about it in the last ten years, it's in this book.

And that in itself is half the fun - to read the book and recognize the homages, the send-ups, the pokes, and references. To say "hey, he's redoing the Moore case!" or "hmm, that researcher sounds suspiciously like..." - it becomes a fun game of guess the insider knowledge.

But from everyone I've talked to, if you don't have that knowledge, this is still a fun book. It's surprisingly educational and still entertaining; if Crichton was hoping to write a book that would educate the general public on very complicated science matters while still entertaining those who are "in the know", he did a fabulous job.

Darkness Falls by Kyle Mills
This last book dropped into my lap by happenschance, but the description caught my attention and I found myself devouring it on my last cross-country flight, back in October. For those of you who are familiar with Mills' work, Darkness Falls brings back his FBI protagonist Mark Beamon, but it doesn't read like any typical sequel that assumes knowledge of the character. Instead, the book stands solidly on its own, focusing on two other main protagonists.

The first is a maverick and radical environmentalist, Erin Neal. Neal is such not because he is radically anti-corporation, or inclined to chain himself to trees, but because he is a scientists who managed the neat trick of pissing off both conservatives and liberals with his no-holds barred book on oil reserves, energy consumption, and genetic engineering to manage the world's power supply/oil reliance problems.

But after the death of his lover Jenna Kalin, who moved from being an active part of environmental conservation to ecoterrorist, Neal stopped his work in the oil fields, dropping off the grid and out of sight. Until, that is, a bioengineered bacteria begins appearing in the world's oil fields, and Beamon bring Neal in - to determine if he's the cause of the genetic engineering, or can if he can help.

Mills uses this book to tackle a different sort of bioweapon - one that attacks a resource and not humanity. When we discuss bioterrorism, we tend to focus on the person and not the other ways we can be attacked and made vulnerable. Oil reserves, food supplies, water sources - all of these are at as much risk as anything else, yet we simply don't talk about it. And with our reliance on both internationally shipped agriculture and oil for everything from insulating wires to food to gasoline, it is an area of serious vulnerability.

The book, of course, covers much more than this, and again encompasses your typical thriller and action material. But the fact that it goes deeper is significant; it's well done, well written, and very thought-provoking. If you were a fan of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, this book is a must read for you.

Check back later this week, when I'll give a rundown of top recommended non-fictional books, which ought to be a much harder suggestion list to make!


David Hunter said...

Nice idea Kelly let me add a few suggestions:

1. Anything by David Brin... In particular Earth and the brilliant Kiln People, a fantastic take on cloning and the potential impacts on society, wrapped in a scifi film noir style detective story.

2. For human enhancement stuff, Greg Bear & Peter F. Hamilton are excellent writers.


Kelly Hills said...

Yep, I definitely agree, David - I especially like Bear's Darwin's [blank] books. And it pained me to leave off Heinlein, but picking just one there was near-impossible!

Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

Oooh -- I have always been a fan of Heinlein's -- loved his strong female characters and his exploration of longevity.

SabrinaW said...

Earth was excellent!

And chalk me up as another fan of Heinlein.

Dune was interesting as well for both human evolutionary questions and terraforming.

Another book I found interesting was Cordelia's Honor (and the rest of the series), by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's the first story I knew of that had ectogenesis (whoo hoo!)