Posts Tagged ‘GMOs’

DeadoutWith his second novel, “Deadout,” Jon McGoran appears to be carving out a nice little niche for himself in the thriller genre. Like his debut, “Drift,” the intrigue centers around genetic modification in agriculture.

That description doesn’t get your heart racing? Trust me. McGoran’s novels paint a nightmarish picture where any entity with the money and know-how can warp the planet’s natural processes for malignant and deadly ends. Worst of all? They’re based in contemporary science. Picture a 1950s mad scientist horror movie, except where the lab-grown monsters are entirely plausible.

Like “Drift,” “Deadout” also uses a contemporary scientific news peg as a framework. In this case, the disappearance of bees.

“Deadout” brings back some characters from “Drift,” including Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick as the hero. A good thing about Carrick as a character is that he doesn’t know anything about all this genetically modified biological hocus-pocus either. That allows him to serve as a reader surrogate while he learns the basics to solve the case.

By bringing back Carrick, McGoran could have run the risk of what I call “Die Hard 2 Syndrome.” That’s when you have a regular-guy protagonist who just happens to stumble into an extraordinary situation in the original story. And then he just happens to stumble into a very similar extraordinary situation in the sequel, for no reason other than a twist of fate. “What? Terrorists are taking over the airport we’re in, similar to the way terrorists took over the building we were in that one time? Darn the luck!” (See also: “Speed 2 syndrome.”)

But McGoran gets around it by keeping the character of Nola Watkins on as Carrick’s organic farmer girlfriend. That gives him an excuse to walk into situations where some kind of agriculture-related nefariousness is going on.

Speaking of “Die Hard,” Carrick resembles that movie’s John McClain in his characterization as a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a relatable and endearing streak of emotional vulnerability.

That comes into play early on when Carrick and Watkins are having some trouble in their relationship. They head out to Martha’s Vinyard, where Watkins has scored a temporary job. There, they find that farmers are desperate because the honeybees necessary to pollinate their crops are disappearing. A corporation is offering to bring in genetically modified bees to make up for that loss.

Could there be something sinister going on behind the scenes? (Spoiler: Yeah. There totally is. It’s a thriller. Did you really expect the answer to that question to be “no?”)

I don’t want to reveal much more. I will say that the story goes to some pretty dark places before it plays out. As in “Drift,” a big part of the fun is the jarring incongruity between the wholesome organic farming milieu, and the scary motherfuckery revealed once McGoran pulls back the curtain.

One welcome addition to “Deadout” missing from the previous book is the suggestion of vast, shadowy forces looming on the periphery of the action. Carrick’s work, McGoran implies, is just beginning. Fine by me. If there’s an upside to the fact that modern science is venturing into some ominous places, it’s the fact that McGoran should have no shortage of material in the foreseeable future.

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DriftIf I was to sit down and rack my brain to think of subjects that could serve as the basis of a gripping thriller, I probably wouldn’t include “botany” on that list. Well, not before I read “Drift” by Jon McGoran, anyway.

Turns out plant science can make for a pulse-pounding story. And I’m not talking Day-of-the-Triffids-style monster plants, either. I’m talking about regular ol’ plant science, grounded in modern-day technology.

The “drift” in the title refers to cross-pollination, which drives the plot. Doesn’t exactly get your heart racing? Trust me on this one. In capable hands, nuts-and-bolts (or nuts-and-berries if you will … sorry) science can make for some very engaging reading. And McGoran’s hands are eminently capable.

It’s basically a techno thriller. But with plants.

McGoran draws on contemporary developments in bioengineering to depict a queasily plausible scenario where unethical parties can exploit those scientific advances — manipulating natural processes at will to produce drugs or weapons. To McGoran’s credit, this isn’t some hysterical, misinformed screed about GMOs. He periodically steps back, providing a rational assessment of the benefits and risks of the scientific advances at the book’s core.

Still, don’t get the impression that this is some dry treatise on modern agriculture. It’s got all the components that fans of slam-bang thrillers (like me) demand of their page-turners. An intriguing mystery. Compelling characters. Kick-ass action sequences. And simmering tension building to a final setpiece that … well, don’t want to give anything away here. Just stick with it.

The story concerns Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick, who gets a 30-day suspension and ends up spending it in rural Pennsylvania. There, he encounters some organic farmers who are wrapped up in the political and ethical issues of commercial crop cultivation.

McGoran makes a canny decision in casting Carrick as the reader surrogate, who’s initially not into this stuff. The story gets some nice comic moments out of his reactions meeting some of the eccentric characters who are.

Even if Carrick doesn’t know anything about organic farming, he’s still got a cop’s instincts that tell him when something fishy is going on. A bunch of known thugs showing up in this small farming community, a mysterious developer buying up land, threatening phone calls to the holdouts and some apparent junkies who seem strangely insistent about their abstinence from drugs all point to something going on under the surface.

With the assistance of new-found friends in the organic farming community, Carrick begins piecing it together and learning as he does. I hasten to add that this isn’t one of those edu-ma-cational thrillers that periodically brings the story to a screeching halt so some character can awkwardly deliver a lengthy academic lecture.  (*Cough cough! Dan Brown. Cough cough!* Pardon me. Something caught in my throat.) McGoran keeps the pacing quick, and the storytelling tight.

So read “Drift” for the entertainment value. And if you learn something along the way, so much the better.