Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

Breakthrough - Marcus Chown *****

Update for new paperback title The original title of this book was 'The Magicians': this may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it referred to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right. Actually, I’m not sure the old title was strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimenta