Review of “Carbon Dreams” by Susan Gaines

Counting Intuition and The Gold Bug Variations, I’ve so far reviewed four novels set in a molecular biology laboratory.  Lest I give the impression that fiction about science can only be stories about molecular biologists, I turn now to another chemist in a completely different field.  Tina Arenas, the protagonist of Susan Gaines’s Carbon Dreams, is an organic geochemist at BIO, an oceanographic research institute that is a lot like Scripps from the description.  She is only a couple years out of grad school, and working on lipids from a microscopic deep-sea life form called picoplankton.

Single minded in her pursuit of a very narrow topic, we first see her asking a big-name visiting lecturer a question that sparks a vigorous debate among the senior staff of the institute.  (She’s so short she has to stand up to be recognized, and the moderator has to be corrected when he addresses her as Ms. instead of Doctor.)  In spite of initial dismissive comments from several senior scientists, she manages to hold her own. Then we see her working in her lab and gossiping with her close friend Katherine, a post-doc in another research team.

We have our first glimpse of Tina’s social life at a TGIF party held on the institute’s dock.  This weekly event was organized originally by the graduate students and is supposed to be an event where students, post-docs and the scientists running their own projects, including the senior investigators, can mingle freely.  But it’s obvious the latter group talk mostly to each other.  Tina finds herself rudely interrupted in a chat with one of them, making it clear that even junior scientists count for much less than the established people.  Finally, Gaines describes Tina half-heartedly socializing at a club with some of her post-doc friends in the evening.  Although she’s a moderately attractive, single young woman from a Hispanic background who likes to dance, she doesn’t have much real social life or a serious relationship going on.

Gaines shows all the facets of Tina’s life while introducing us to the substance of her work and it’s implications, which are current and controversial to say the least:  the causes of climate change and the origins of life.  As if that weren’t enough, the technique Tina’s developing (with aging and cantankerous equipment on temporary loan from a senior staff member) is potentially of interest to the petroleum industry.  Who knew that the dull, routine work going on in a chemistry lab could be so exciting?  Oh, and by the way, Tina’s grant will run out in a few months; she won’t have a job at BIO if the NSF proposal she’s working on doesn’t get funded.  Indeed, she won’t have a job — period.

All but one major character in the novel is a scientist or a science student busy doing very realistic science.  The one exception is Chip, a local organic farmer and landscaper, who’s also involved in all sorts of local environmental issues.  That’s important given the implications of Tina’s research for fossil fuel extraction and global warming.   Tina meets Chip one afternoon when she returns to her apartment and sees him landscaping the grounds of the building she lives in.  A number of chance encounters subsequently bring them together, and not far into the story they become friends.  Pretty soon they are sleeping together.

The story takes an interesting turn when Katherine helps Tina get an invitation to participate in a drilling trip aboard one of the institute’s ships.  The trip will depart soon and won’t return until just before Christmas, when her father will be visiting her.  Katherine has fully briefed Tina on the Love Boat aspect of these trips for the grad students, post-docs and junior staff members.

Next, her NSF proposal gets turned down in a way that beautifully illustrates the politics of funding.  But this prompts her patron, a senior faculty member of a nearby university and Tina’s advisor’s advisor, to suggest a project of interest to geologists looking for oil.  It turns into both a proposal to continue Tina’ funding and a collaboration on a poster related to the origins of life.  Just before the drilling trip is about to begin, her borrowed equipment dies.  And Chip is very annoyed by her attitude toward their relationship.

All this happens in the first quarter of the book, so I’m confident I haven’t given a lot away.  And there is a lot of science woven into those pages, and I mean serious, detailed explanations and discussions.  Geochemistry is not something I know a whole lot about, nor climate science nor microbiology, so I’m in no position to judge the accuracy of these passages.  But they weren’t something I could skim over.  Some readers may have their patience tried by these passages.  One reviewer described them as information dumps.  But readers who skip them will miss out on the best parts of the story which follows.  Serious readers who pay attention to them will be amply rewarded.

The characters are all beautifully drawn, and the settings vividly described.  The story unfolds in a wide range of places both typical and very atypical, except for oceanographers.  The plot is well constructed to keep you turning the pages (although nobody’s life is ever in danger and none of the characters ever attack each other physically).  I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what makes scientists tick.

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