Petroplague - Book Review

Disclosure Note: I was given a free digital copy of this book for review.

Thrillers aren't typically my cup of tea. I most often stick to non-fiction, and when it comes to novels, I tend to favor books that use the plot to develop characters, rather than the other way around. But when Amy Rogers sent me a copy her novel Petroplague, she billed it as "fictionalized science, not science fiction," and I was intrigued. Coupled with the fact that it's a book about bacteria and about energy and about science, I couldn't say no.

Some spoilers follow, but as we now know, spoilers don't actually spoil your enjoyment, so read on (and I won't give away the ending).

i-92aac4e401e300a4a18c2f349b4048c4-Screen Shot 2011-10-15 at 5.58.43 PM.pngPetroplague tells the story of Christina Gonzalez, a diligent grad student from UCLA, genetically engineering a bacterium that can metabolize long-chain hydrocarbons (like those found in oil and tar) and turn them into methane (natural gas). The goal is to use these bacteria to extract energy from tar sands. But everything goes horribly wrong when her test site is sabotaged by an ecoterrorist, loosing her bacteria onto the streets of LA, where it gobbles up everything from gasoline to jet fuel, bringing the entire car-choked city to a screeching halt (with a healthy dose of methane explosions thrown in for good measure).

The Good:

- The story is fast paced and rarely dull. Chapter breaks seem to come every other page (this is literally true in some cases), but the action pulls you forward. As I said, I'm not a general consumer of thrillers, so I couldn't say if it stands out in this regard (there's a couple good Amazon reviews with readers who seem more familiar with the genre). So onto something I know more about:

- The science is utterly believable (mostly). There are folks working on bacteria that metabolize oil, there are folks working on bacteria that make hydrocarbons. I'm not aware of anyone researching the same thing as the protagonist, but it's in no way unreasonable.

The biggest scientific leap-of-faith is the mechanism by which the bugs get out of control. Lab strains of bugs like this are notoriously feeble (one of the major issues with the commercial feasibility of these approaches), and it's difficult to imagine that a shift from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism alone would turn them into the scourge of LA. Still, it's at least plausible, which is far more than I could say about most fictional portrayals of science.

- Rogers goes out of her way to actually talk about a scientist and the way science is done as more than just caricatures. There are a few problems I had with this (see below), but overall, it's a welcome change from the standard stereotypes. The author herself is an MD/PhD, so she knows of what she speaks, and it's refreshing to see a bit more nuance in the portrayal of researchers (other than egghead or mad scientist). Though the public largely trusts scientists, what we do is mostly a black box, and more humanizing portrayals can only help.

The Bad:

- In several cases, the exposition was a bit obvious. In other words, there were several times when Christina (the main protagonist) was explaining her research or events in ways that were blatantly explanations to the reader, and felt unnatural. I imagine it's quite difficult to explain the science in a narrative without coming across like a textbook, and I don't know if I could have done any better, but there were several cases where it took me out of the story.

- There were a few places where the science is wrong or exaggerated. For instance, when Christina and her boss are trying to determine the origin of the bacteria, they stay in the lab all night doing a bunch of different assays (accurate!) including a microarray to check the DNA of the bacteria (not accurate). A microarray is a way to look at changes in the level of expression of a large number of genes at the same time, but very few labs have their own microarrays, and even those that have their own would be hard pressed to prep a sample, run it, and analyze the data in the course of a single night. But even leaving that aside, though you can use microarrays for genotyping, it wouldn't make sense in this setting. If you were looking at the potential of thousands of different bacteria, that would be one thing, but in this case a simple PCR would be sufficient.

It's a minor point, perhaps all the more glaring because most of the book is scientifically sound, but for all the effort put into getting the science right, minor lapses like this (especially because they are not necessary for the plot) were a bit infuriating.

The Verdict:

It's a quick read, and it's both entertaining and scientifically plausible. I'm not thrilled with the idea of freaking people out about engineered bacteria (since I think this is one of the most promising approaches to our energy crisis), but the book is not alarmist, and the positive portrayal of research scientists more than makes up for it in my opinion.

If you're into thrillers, and you like you like your science accurate (as I would hope my readers do), this seems a steal at $5 for the Kindle version, and Amy Rogers told me she intends to self-publish a print version that will go on sale December 1st.

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The author is free to label her work as she wishes. Over the last forty years or so, many folks(including, according some speculation the Sci-fi network, now SyFy network) don't wish to be known as Science fiction. It has an overly geeky and immature association. Something that real grown ups and/or the socially capable won't or don't read. "Oh, little Johnny is reading about rocket ships to Mars and monsters again." Having said that, I will most likely read this book. Your description is good and it sounds interesting. I would point out Harlan Ellison and Neal Stephenson both are tentatively slotted into sci fi. Ellison flat out didn't want to categorized, Stephenson writes it but doesn't fit well. So now it seems there is a lot of "speculative fiction," or "fictionalized science," both of which generally deal with abstract thought experiments, futuristic ethical considerations, while dealing slightly with current issues and events of interests. Sounds like this story is similar to a science fiction piece written a century or two ago called, "Frankenstein." The general population likes a good scare story involving the ambitiously intelligent and creative being out of control and guilty of "playing God." Personally, I feel it is reflective of a very old evolutionary perspective in which being fearful has a greater pay off then being progressive or unfearful. #There is a noise in the forest!" *We'd better act like it is a lion. *HOw should we respond? (1)Running away works! (2)Wait! I have a sharp rock on a long stick, we can fight the lion! (1)You and your new fangled technology! Why should we listen to you? **Please note: failure of the new fangled technology is very expensive. Running away works!

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 16 Oct 2011 #permalink

>>Sounds like this story is similar to a science fiction >>piece written a century or two ago called, "Frankenstein."

There is a novel by Kit Pedler from 1970s called Mutant 59, which is a by far more recent predecessor of Petroplague than Frankenstein. In Pedler's novel the bacteria eats plastic.

By Denis Shepetovsky (not verified) on 17 Oct 2011 #permalink

@ Mike - Welcome back, it's been a while. If you do read the book, come back and let me know if you think the term fits. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the distinction, but I usually think of science fiction as talking about things that are currently wildly beyond our reach. The science in this novel felt like something I could be reading about next week.

@ Dennis - A plastic eating bacterium would be almost as crippling (if not more so) as an oil eating one. Seems a bit more far fetched though - the polymers of plastic should be incredibly hard for living things to eat through (or else they'd have to secrete enzymes or something).

Also, FYI: if you want to quote previous comments (or something I've said), you can wrap the text in the html code "blockquote." So if you wanted to quote Mike's comment as you did, it would be

[blockquote]Sounds like this story is similar to a science fiction piece written a century or two ago called, "Frankenstein." [/blockquote]

Just change the " ] " brackets to ">" brackets and you get:

Sounds like this story is similar to a science fiction piece written a century or two ago called, "Frankenstein."

I recall, in the early days, there was a proposal to endow E coli with genes for cellulose digesting enzymes. It was decided that this was too dangerous, and the idea was dropped. Think what would happen if a few of these made it into your colon!

An argument I heard, long ago, against feasibility of oil eating bacteria is that they would need other elements not present in oil. To clean up an oil spill you would have to supply them with N, P, K, and trace elements, etc. Maybe trigger an algal bloom in the process.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 25 Oct 2011 #permalink

@ Jim - Interesting, but aren't there are natural oil-eating bacteria consuming the oil in Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill? Do you think they just have enzymes that E. coli would lack that don't have the same requirements?