Skip to main content

The Naturalist (SF) - Andrew Mayne ****

There's a twilight border of science fiction, sometimes known as lab lit. It features science/scientists, but the science is more current than speculative - and one aspect of The Naturalist falls into this category. Its protagonist, Professor Theo Cray, is a computational biologist, who gets sucked into a murder enquiry and uses the tools of his trade to crack the case.

You could argue that Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books fit in the same category, but unfortunately Brown gets so much of the science so horribly wrong that it would be an insult to link it with science fiction. That apart, there is one other good reason for mentioning Brown - his writing isn't exactly high quality, but he knows how to produce a book you can't put down, and Andrew Mayne uses similar page turning techniques (including very short chapters) to keep the reader wanting more. Thankfully, though, he does this with a better writing style than Brown.

With a clever twist at the beginning we're plunged into Theo Cray's world. Mayne emphasises this by writing in the first person present, a style that can be a little wearing on the reader, but certainly keeps the energy flowing.

This is primarily a crime-solving thriller, but it does have that scientific edge, and though Cray's computer system (I've only just noticed: Cray - computer system - coincidence?) is a bit too clever, the use of science here is a lot better than in Brown's books. That science part is also not just a backdrop, but essential to Cray's crime-solving efforts, from the use of plant species interaction to discover recent soil disturbance to the computerised mapping of incidents to predict other possible locations.

It's a great page-turning adventure - ideal for a spot of brainless entertainment that doesn't leave you feeling as guilty as reading Brown - but it does stretch credibility a number of times. The way that Cray effectively abandons his career to pursue a problem that puts his life at risk seems an unlikely fit with his personality. At one point he makes a totally illogical deduction based solely on the way someone looks in an old photograph. And the ending, though dramatic, is the sort of thing that Hollywood gets away with, but seems highly unlikely in a book. We are also faced with a repeatedly incompetent police force, which I hope doesn't reflect reality in America, and Cray constantly ignores opportunities to work with the police or to bring in the FBI.

However, as long as you accept a hearty suspension of disbelief and go along with the flow, the action/adventure is impressive, the bad guy is suitably horrifying, and the use of science does contribute to the action. I'm glad to have come across Professor Cray.



Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…