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The Prize (SF) - Geoffrey Cooper ****

Some would prefer to label The Prize as lab lit rather than science fiction, as there is nothing in the science, apart from a non-existent drug, that isn't perfectly feasible, but I find the distinction artificial. What Geoffrey Cooper, a former professor and cancer researcher, has produced here is an engaging and page-turning thriller with a scientific context.

I was a little doubtful when I read the opening - the wording seemed a little too Dan Brown for my liking - but by the time I was into the second of the very short chapters (the whole book is quite short) I was hooked. The actual medical research part - about a drug that can reverse early onset of Alzheimers - is secondary to the fascinating insights Cooper brings to the machinations of a fictional science community. We tend to think of scientists as being noble and above suspicion, but here we get as much self-promotion, sexual predatory nature and administrative incompetence as you'd have expected from an episode of Dallas. I'm not saying - and I'm sure Cooper isn't either - that all science activity is like this, but particularly where there are the twin drivers of the potential of a Nobel Prize (the one in the book's title) and of patents worth millions, it wouldn't be surprising if there weren't hints of reality here.

The storyline features a well-established, middle-aged (male) expert in the field, itching to win the Nobel Prize, but challenged by a younger, female newcomer. When the main character, Pam, makes a breakthrough, a combination of a postdoc who feels she's been betrayed by her lab head and an unpleasant and weak supervisor makes it possible that Pam's career will be ruined. Throw in suspicion of murder and things don't look too good for her.

If I'm honest, the mechanics of the thriller part are fairly simple - perhaps there could have been a few more twists and turns - but the execution of it is good and I genuinely had to keep turning those pages. (The former occupation of the main character's boyfriend was kind of convenient, incidentally.)

The comparison with Dan Brown at the start was apt. Brown's writing style is nothing to write home about - it's often terrible - but he knows exactly how to keep a thriller moving and the audience engaged. And, of course, Brown has set a book in CERN and has a central character who's an academic. Cooper may not have put as much in the way of plot twists into this book as Brown would, but where he has total supremacy is in his understanding of the academic and scientific world. The characters in The Prize may be extreme examples, but I suspect most academics would recognise their types - and Cooper manages to make subjects like the struggle for tenure and the attempts to win a Nobel more interesting than some unlikely sounding Illuminati conspiracy.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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