(AuthorHouse Publishing; October 2011, 336 pages, $17.95)
Despite being the lifeblood of modern civilization, oil is exceedingly toxic to most living things–so toxic, in fact, that as little as a one-hundredth of a teaspoon of it in an Olympic pool-sized pond can kill aquatic life.1 Yet it's a testament to the adaptability of life on Earth that a few hardy species not only avoid being harmed by this muck but depend on it for food. Numerous bacteria feed on both underground oil deposits and surface seeps like the La Brea Tar Pits. Nor have the practical applications of these bugs' appetite for oil been lost on scientists; researchers long ago began studying microbes as a means of cleaning up hazardous waste, an approach known as bioremediation.
The dangers of introducing non-native species into any habitat are, of course, well-known by now, but go unheeded in the face of a crisis. The science fiction novel Ill Wind shows what could happen if an oil spill were treated with an untested microbe that began spreading like a noxious weed, colonizing the world oil infrastructure. In the course of several harrowing days, every oil-based product in the world vanishes and our species returns to an agrarian, pre-industrial state. Written in 1995 by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason, this novel is an original, highly readable parable about humankind's tampering with nature.
Well, now we have a brand-new entrant to the oil-eating-bug-runs-amok tradition: the self-published novel Petroplague. It's a Crichton-esque thriller written by microbiology professor-turned author Amy Rogers, who says she aims to "blur the line between fact and fiction so well that you need a Ph.D. to figure out where one ends and the other begins."2 The plot involves a batch of experimental, oil-hungry bacteria inadvertently loosed upon Los Angeles, which proceed to wreak a near biblical swath of destruction. Part ecology lesson and part cautionary tale, Petroplague is an entertaining entrée into the subject of oil depletion and its implications for society, human health and the environment.
The bacteria in Petroplague are a genetically modified version of Syntrophus, a real-life microbe known for being one of the most extreme-living organisms on the planet. It's killed by exposure to air but flourishes deep underground in oil-bearing rocks, where it must withstand unbelievable heat and pressure, and where the lethal compounds in crude oil are its candy. Syntrophus is currently being tested as a way to economically extract heavy oil from tar sands and shale. In theory, this technology could convert vast quantities of now-inaccessible oil into methane that could easily be piped to the surface.
This is the end toward which UCLA researcher Robert Chen is working in Petroplague. He and his protégé, a brilliant but timid and self-conscious doctoral student named Christina Gonzales, have simulated a tar sand using an abandoned underground service station tank and are injecting it with their altered Syntrophus strain. But the experiment goes disastrously wrong when the tank ignites and blows up the research site. The next day, in a hammer blow to their project, their chief sponsor, CaliPetro, pulls its funding. The one bright spot to this sorry incident is that at least their escaped microbe won't be able to do further harm, since it's killed by the open air.
Or is it? Shortly after the explosion, other alarming things begin happening around central L.A. More buildings explode. An epidemic of stall-outs makes roads impassable. Planes fall from the sky as their engines sputter. The La Brea Tar Pits rain asphalt on hapless onlookers, and great flows of tar advance like lava from a Guatemalan volcano, inundating downtown buildings. Earthquakes rage, pillaging erupts, a crew of subway workers nearly asphyxiates–and all the while, the air warms and begins smelling of vinegar.
The scale of the pandemonium is matched only by the quandary over what to do about it. Trucking in replacement fuel from outside the city will only feed the plague, and the explosions and seismic disturbances can neither be predicted nor abated. No vehicle with an internal combustion engine can be allowed to leave L.A., since it would only be introducing the plague to new habitats. Without motorized transport, supermarkets will soon be bare. And issuing a voluntary evacuation order will only increase the panic level. Luckily, however, electricity and water supplies won't be affected right away, since they rely on coal and natural gas and the bacteria consume only petroleum.
As Christina and Dr. Chen work around the clock to understand what's happening and how it can be contained, they're under increasing threat from mobs, deadly invisible gas flares and the machinations of a slimy biofuels executive who wants to kill their research and hand them to the authorities. Amidst this chaos, Christina grows closer to her activist cousin River and River's slacker boyfriend, Mickey, both of whom she's looked down upon for their impertinence and pride at being arrested at rallies. However, their closeness is soon tested by a dark revelation linking River and Mickey's activist involvement to the blast that started the plague.
And that brings me to the novel's most daring theme: the thin line between eco-activism and eco-terrorism. Petroplague bristles with irony at how eco-terrorists can violate their own ideals by resorting to extreme methods, the terrorists responsible for bombing Dr. Chen's test site being a case in point. Determined to put an end to climate-damaging emissions from fossil fuel burning, they never stop to think that the microbe they're releasing could cause its own runaway emissions if it were to reach the Arctic permafrost, with its billions of tons of stored methane hydrates. The uncomfortable subject of eco-terrorism is one that I suspect is deeply felt by Rogers, given her background as a university science professor.
Petroplague is conventional in its characters' arc from ecological complacency to a newfound awareness of humankind's impacts on the Earth. It's much less conventional in its demonstration that even a seemingly simple life form like a bacterium could be more advanced than a human being. Throughout the book Rogers provides fascinating and unfailingly accessible science lessons for the reader–including one with detailed diagrams of hydrocarbon molecules, drawn by Christina to illustrate a point for River and Mickey. Rogers doesn't, however, let these lessons get in the way of her storytelling.
Though I like this novel pretty well, I do have a beef with Rogers. Her insistence that she writes science thrillers, not science fiction.3 That's unmitigated nonsense. If science thrillers aren't science fiction, then neither are lost world stories, future-war sagas or what David Ketterer calls "philosophically oriented" science fiction.4 Indeed, I challenge Rogers to explain how Petroplague resists the following classic definition of science fiction proposed by Theodore Sturgeon: "A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content."5
1. Riki Ott, Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Philadelphia: Lorenzo Press, printed for Dragonfly Sisters Press, 2005), 442.
2. Amy Rogers, "About," Amy Rogers: science thriller writer, http://www.amyrogers.com/styled-2/ (accessed Feb. 16, 2012).
4. Brian Stableford, John Clute, and Peter Nicholls, "Definitions of SF," in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995), 311-4.
5. James Blish (as William Atheling Jr.), The Issue at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1967), 14.