"Mount Dragon", Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Pros: Entertaining on a surface level, yet contains surprising depth
Cons: Characterization seems off… at first
Rating: 5 out of 5

Every once in a while I get in the odd mood for a biotech thriller–something that mingles tension, action, medicine or biotechnology, and the thrill of scientific intrigue. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea. I’ve been in this mood for a few weeks, so when I was at Borders this weekend I picked up a copy of Preston and Child’s “Mount Dragon”. I wanted something fun, and I definitely got it, but I also got much more than that.

It’s going to take me a little time to put my feelings on this book into words, because it’s a more complex book than it seems at first. On a surface level it’s an entertaining read, packed with mysteries, discoveries, action, and even a sex scene (note: the book isn’t for kids). It also, as is perhaps unavoidable and even obligatory for biotech thrillers, allows you to explore the ideas of what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do with the knowledge we’re gaining. It takes these themes far deeper than I’m accustomed to, however, allowing them to permeate the characters and plots in ways that I’m still unraveling, even though I’ve been done with the book for more than a day.

Plot Notes

GeneDyne has an ambitious goal, but one it believes it’s all-too-close to solving: eradicate the flu. Permanently. This might not sound stunning at first, but so many lives have been lost to the flu, and so much money is lost to it in productivity every year. Unfortunately, the stress of trying to make the new gene therapy work (before the patent that’s currently funding the company expires) seems to have sent the current lead scientist over the edge. Scopes, the brilliant young CEO of GeneDyne, brings in Guy Carson to finish the job. He sends Carson off to Mount Dragon, the company’s highly-secure facility in New Mexico.

Things are never that simple, however. For some reason no matter what the scientists try, their gene therapy is far more lethal and horrifying than the flu itself, even though there’s simply no reason why it should be. The stress is really getting to the good folks at Mount Dragon, stirring up all sorts of resentments and irritations. And one Charles Levine, Carson’s old instructor at Harvard and Scopes’ old college friend, will do anything to convince the world that GeneDyne isn’t going to save the human race–it’s going to doom it.

Characterization and Inheritance

The plot swept me along as I read “Mount Dragon”. The authors effortlessly blend together a whirl of elements: Levine and the Harvard community; genetics and policy-making; Scopes and corporate pressures; Carson and his Ute ancestry; a hacker called Mime and his own unique circumstances; the legend of the Mount Dragon gold; and much more.

At first my one reservation about this book was that the characterization felt a little… off. I’m loath to explain any further, because I think most people wouldn’t notice or care, and because ultimately it all turns out to be entirely appropriate.

The book obviously focuses on genetics, public policy, and the potential dangers in messing with things such as human genes and viruses, but it allows the plot and characters to take center stage. I think it fairly clearly comes down on the side of certain things being dangerous, but it doesn’t lecture and it doesn’t present a one-sided view of things. You get to see the pros and cons of so many issues as the story unfolds. Of more interest, however, is something I didn’t notice until afterward. Each character brings his or her own element of inheritance to the plot–through genetics, history, teaching, lore, personality, or some other factor. And each of these elements affects the plot in its own unique way, adding layer upon layer of depth to the whole notion of genetics, inheritance, what we might stand to gain or lose upon messing with our own genetic code, and more.

The Science

I’m no geneticist, so I can’t tell you how advanced any of the science is or whether it makes sense. What I can tell you is that the authors do an awesome job of weaving that science into the story and making it interesting and understandable. Even if you don’t understand terminology, I think if you enjoy scientific thrillers at all then you’ll find the explanations entirely accessible. Only in the very beginning do we see any clumsy moments where characters explain things they shouldn’t need to explain, just for the reader’s benefit–after that it becomes quite smooth and absorbing.

I don’t think I can quite do the complexity and elegance of this book justice. It’s a rousing good story, filled with plot twists, excitement, fascinating characters, lively locations, and action. The intricate layers of inheritance woven throughout, however, elevate it to a higher level. You can enjoy it thoroughly without once noticing them (and indeed they are not at all intrusive), but they add so much to think about.

Visit the authors’ website.

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