By Ethan Cross
When Nobel laureate Liam Connor is found dead at the bottom of one of Ithaca, New York’s famous gorges, his research collaborator, Cornell professor of nanoscience Jake Sterling, refuses to believe it was suicide. Why would one of the world’s most eminent biologists, a eighty-six-year old man in good health who survived some of the darkest days of the Second World War, have chosen to throw himself off a bridge? And who was the mysterious woman caught on camera at the scene? Soon it becomes clear that a cache of supersophisticated nanorobots—each the size of a spider—has disappeared from the dead man’s laboratory.
Stunned by grief, Jake, Liam’s granddaughter, Maggie, and Maggie’s nine-year-old son, Dylan, try to put the pieces together. They uncover ingeniously coded messages Liam left behind pointing toward a devastating secret he gleaned off the shores of war-ravaged Japan and carried for more than sixty years.
What begins as a quest for answers soon leads to a horrifying series of revelations at the crossroads of biological warfare and nanoscience. At this dangerous intersection, a skilled and sadistic assassin, an infamous Japanese war criminal, and a ruthless U.S. government official are all players in a harrowing game of power, treachery, and intrigue—a game whose winner will hold the world’s fate literally in the palm of his hand.
Paul McEuen is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics at Cornell University and Director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science. He is a visionary and pioneer in his chosen field, but now Paul has taken on a new challenge and joined the ranks of published authors. He explodes onto the thriller scene this month with his new novel, Spiral, a book that has been described by Booklist as “what may be the most gripping and engrossing thriller this reviewer has ever read in almost 50 years of thriller reading.”
You are an award winning scientist and a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology (a technology that plays a major role in Spiral). Among all of your other numerous accomplishments, how did you find the time to write a novel? And why?
Honestly, when I started I had no idea what I was getting into. I started SPIRAL while on a sabbatical, over seven years ago now, with a completely different storyline and cast of characters. I was convinced I would be done by the end of the sabbatical, but I wasn’t even close. SPIRAL went through at least a dozen major revisions before I sold it, and quite a few more revisions after. Now I sneak in my writing during the mornings, on weekends, and on vacations. I find it a great complement to my professional life as a physicist– a chance to use my scientific curiosity and knowledge in an entirely different way.
As to why–I was looking for a new challenge. Academics are like everyone else–when forty rolls around, it’s time for the mid-life crisis. Some buy sports cars or take up windsurfing, others become department chairs or deans. I decided to write a thriller. I’ve always been a big reader, and I wrote a little when I was younger, but all that stopped once I became a professor. I’d neglected the creative part of myself, and I decided to reclaim it. It’s been a great experience.
A portion of your book is based upon Unit 731, a group within the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. Can you give us a bit of background on Unit 731?
Unit 731 was a military and medical unit hell-bent on developing chemical and biological superweapons for the Japanese war effort. It was led by a sociopathic scientist named Shiro Ishii who had a complete disregard for human life and suffering. At its peak, Unit 731 occupied an enormous complex, with hundreds of buildings where the most gruesome and horrific experiments imaginable were conducted. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Chinese civilians and prisoners of war, perished in these laboratory tests that included autopsies on live subjects. To make matters worse, they field tested their weapons on Chinese cities, dropping pathogens on the populace and carefully documenting the resulting illness and death. The number killed in these tests is unknown, but it is almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could be in the millions. Shamefully, MacArthur and the US government made an agreement with Ishii after the war to cover up the atrocities. Ishii died a free man. Other leaders of Unit 731 went on to become extremely wealthy and successful members of post-war Japanese society. Hitoshi Kitano, the major antagonist of SPIRAL, is a fictionalized member of this clique.
Nanotechnology is a field of science that many feel will truly revolutionize the way that we live our lives. As an expert and visionary in the field, can you give us an idea of how nanotechnology could impact our world in the next 5 to 10 to 20 years?
The big changes coming will involve the blurring of the line between technology and living organisms. There are two ways this is happening. The first involves bringing inanimate technology to life. The spider-like MicroCrawlers from the book are an example of this, as are next generation robots with human-like gestures and communication skills. The second–and maybe more revolutionary—approach is taking control of the technology of life. This is the discipline of synthetic biology–the hacking of life. You sit at a computer, design a genome, boot it up in a cell and create an organism that will do what you want. Already synthetic biologists are using bacterial organisms to manufacture the anti-malarial drug artemisinin and produce liquid fuels from sunlight. The field is still in its infancy, more or less where microelectronics was in the 1950s, and the progress going forward is expected to be spectacular. The cost to fabricate a snippet of DNA is dropping by a factor of two every year. Twenty years from now, kids will be designing life forms the way they program iPhone apps today. The implications are stunning to envision.
Is the technology from Spiral based upon the real world science of today or what you see as the science of tomorrow? In other words, is it science fiction or science fact?
The Crawlers described in Spiral are still fantasy, but the technologies for building microbots are improving very quickly. They aren’t autonomous, and they can’t yet power themselves by eating yet, but they’re getting there. When I started writing Spiral seven years ago, a MicroCrawler was completely beyond the possible. Now, I’d say we’re halfway there.
What happens when we get there? Military funding sources like DARPA support most of the research on micro- and nano-robotics in the US. A Crawler might collect environmental samples from a contaminated weapons site, or it could be employed as a tiny assassin. In the longer term, imagine sending a Crawler inside a cancer patient through a tiny incision, then sending the patient home. The Crawler would steadily search out and find cancerous tissue and carefully slice it out. At the moment this is complete science fiction, but one day it could happen.
Obviously you didn’t need to do extensive research into the field of nanotechnology, but over the course of the novel, did the book take you into other unexpected places requiring other forms of research? Were there any interesting facts that you learned that didn’t make it into the book?
I learned a whole bunch of cool things about fungi. Fungi are saprobes, feeders on the dead, and sometimes they like to help the process along. For example, fungi produce compounds called mycotoxins that can make you vomit, destroy your liver, give you cancer, or drive you insane. For example St. Anthony’s Fire was a common affliction during the Middle Ages–peasants would go stark, raving mad for no apparent reason. Similar outbreaks in America led to the Salem Witch Trials. Turns out St. Anthony’s Fire was caused by the ergot fungus on the rye grains used to bake bread. Ergot produces LSA alkaloids, the harsher cousin of LSD. An outbreak hit France in the 1950s, turning a quiet village into a madhouse. You are what you eat.
What are you reading now and who have been the greatest influences upon your own writing?
At the moment, I’m reading Swamplandia!, a wonderfully quirky debut novel by Karen Russell about a family’s attempt to save their failing alligator park. Before that it was Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus, a memoir about surfing and spirituality, and before that Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel. I’ll read almost anything, from thrillers to literary fiction to YA. As for influences in the thriller genre, Michael Crichton looms large. His best (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) were textbooks for me, as was Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs and William Goldman’s Marathon Man (I ripped off the dentist scene for Spiral.) I’ll read anything by Michael Gruber, though I can’t hope to write like him. Outside of thrillers, I’m a huge fan of John Irving, and I worship at the feet of one-time Cornellian and all-around genius Kurt Vonnegut. For the budding thriller writer, I also recommend Robert McKee’s Story, the best book I know about storytelling, even though it’s about writing screenplays.
Are you currently working on a new book? Can we get a sneak peek?
The working title is BURN. It’s very Crichtonesque, with synthetic biology gone bad, creating bugs that can feed on metals and set anything made of aluminum on fire. So I’ve got my disaster scenario. Now, as my editor recently told me, all I need are characters and a story.
“Spiral by Paul McEuen carries the reader on a fascinating ride through a world of bioweaponry, nanoscience, murder, and international intrigue. This gripping story, partially based on Unit 731, the biological warfare group of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, is one of the best debut thrillers I’ve read in a long time.”—Douglas Preston, author of Impact and The Monster of Florence
“Spiral is an all-too-frighteningly-real tale. This is an exciting debut.”—Steve Berry, author of The Emperor’s Tomb
“A riveting story that combines international intrigue with fascinating inventions such as the MicroCrawler, a spiderlike robot with knife-sharp legs. In more ways than one, Spiral will get under your skin.” —Mark Alpert, author of Final Theory
“Fast-paced and suspenseful . . . McEuen, a leader in nanoscience research at Cornell, makes unsettling use of recent developments in the field. . . . After you’ve finished the book, try not hearing [the MicroCrawlers] go tink tink tink in the night. . . . exciting and unsettling.”—Kirkus Reviews
“It’s hard to reckon with the realization that a prominent scientist in a cutting-edge field, writing his first novel in his “spare time,” has created what may be the most gripping and engrossing thriller this reviewer has ever read in almost 50 years of thriller reading…[Paul McEuen] wisely writes about what he knows…but also shows a true gift for plotting, pace, characterization, and writerly clarity…and remarkably, he makes [his] ideas accessible to typical thriller aficionados. A stunning achievement.”
– Booklist, starred review
Paul McEuen is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics at Cornell University and Director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the Agilent Technologies Europhysics Prize, a Packard Fellowship, and a Presidential Young Investigator Award. He lives with his wife and five dogs in Ithaca, New York.