I had Amy Rogers’s Petroplague on my “to read” list for some time, but it kept being pushed down by other novels that popped up on my idiosyncratic radar. Readers will already know I that I generally avoid mysteries. Now, another aversion: I have a thing about thrillers. One reason Petroplague kept sinking was that it was clearly a techno-thriller.
I’m not saying I don’t read a thriller occasionally and enjoy it. Here’s my beef. Any work of fiction requires the reader to suspend disbelief. We do this willingly for many reasons–entertainment, distraction, relief from boredom, experience with exotic places and interesting occupations, a new perspective on the world, and many others. I suppose that different genres have different rules for how far a writer can stretch the readers’ sense of reality before it breaks. I assume what keeps the sales of thrillers going is that a large readership agrees to accept a widely agreed upon set of unrealistic facts and events. Presumably, my dissatisfaction with the genre is that I don’t share some of the latter rules.
I usually hang up when one or more of the characters begin to perform a series of almost superhuman feats, one after another, and emerge unscathed. When it happens early in the book and keeps happening, I pause during a lull in the action, and ask myself why I’m reading this book. If I’m reading it for entertainment and I’m not enjoying it, I quit. Reading Petroplague was part of my mission to promote fiction about science, as I define it (see earlier commentaries). I want to help serious discerning readers find stories about scientists in pursuit of understanding how the natural world works, and I’ll read a genre novel that contains realistic science and scientists with the goal of pointing out a storyline that isn’t representative of scientific research. That’s what put Rogers’s book on my list and that’s why I eventually came to write this review.
I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The first unrealistic action didn’t occur until two-thirds of the way through, and really absurd stuff didn’t start until very near the end (with 85% of the text behind me). So I finished the book, and then asked myself, did all the unbelievable action–all the racheting up of the stakes–really improve an already fine plotline? This wonderful novel has so much to recommend it, it doesn’t need the pyrotechnics.
Christina Gonzales, the protagonist, is an attractive Latina with a pleasant personality. She doesn’t wear make up and dresses with comfort in mind. She’s working on her PhD thesis at UCLA, but in her very first scene she is working as a volunteer in the La Brea Tar Pits, helping clean recently excavated skeletal specimens and explaining the paleontological significance of the work to visitors.
We soon find out that she is working on a strain of petroleum-eating bacteria, like those used to assist clean-up efforts after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Christina’s bacteria, Syntrophus, are different in that they are anaerobic and they work in concert with other bacteria deep in crude oil deposits to produce methane, the principle ingredient in natural gas. She is also helping her thesis advisor, Dr. Chen, develop a strain of E. coli that will produce isobutanol, a good, but expensive substitute for gasoline.
Christina’s personal life unfolds in a dramatic scene in which she drives to the LA County Courthouse to bail out her cousin River and her boyfriend, Mickey. The three of them share an apartment close enough to the UCLA campus that Christina can easily bike to work and walk there when she needs to. The real action begins when we learn that an eco-terrorist bomb, which exploded in an underground storage tank of an abandoned gas station in South LA, destroyed Christina’s pilot project and PhD thesis. The tanks, loaded with instrumentation, were filled with low-grade crude oil infected with Christina’s oil-eating bacteria. It quickly becomes clear that Christina’s bacteria were also released by the explosion and have evolved into aerobic organisms that are gobbling up gasoline, Diesel fuel and jet fuel. And out of its underground anaerobic environment, the bacteria are producing, not methane but acetic acid and hydrogen, an odorless, invisible and extremely explosive gas. This is the beginning of the LA petroplague.
Cars, truck and planes grind to a halt as Christina’s bacteria consume their fuel, and free hydrogen gas causes explosions and fires around the city. Christina has a firsthand experience with the latter while working in the tar pit when her friend, Linda, sparks a hydrogen flame that quickly consumes her and almost kills Christina. This very personal death symbolizes the deaths of passengers aboard two fateful jets over the Pacific. In an artful twist, Rogers has Christina realize that by earlier telling Mickey where her project was located, she has inadvertently passed information to the eco-terrorist, who is perhaps the most culpable character in the story. As the cast of characters continues to grow, Rogers weaves them into an intricate plot. The science also becomes more complicated. However, in an interesting maneuver, Rogers has added five-pages of technical notes at the end in which she explains (with references, bless her heart) the technical details and distinguishes the parts she admits, “I made this stuff up.”
I always take it as a mark of great writing that I was too wrapped up in the story and too identified with the characters, especially Christina, to quit so close to the end of the book. So I can recommend Rogers’s book without hesitation to my most sciencephobic friends. However, when I finished the last page of the story, I sat back and tried to imagine the book without the fights, the serious burns, and the bullet in the arm. I think leaving them out would make a better story. Finally, a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly since I first started to write fiction: Have publishers grown so fixated on profits that they won’t publish a good story without ordinary characters turning into superheroes?