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

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…