Thursday, January 31, 2013

Robin Cook Puts Nano Under The Skin

Without knowing that the medical thriller Nano by Robin Cook ends with loose ends or on a cliffhanger, it's almost certain to be hated. So let's get it out of the way. It ends on a cliffhanger.

It doesn't even end on a good cliffhanger. It just ends. But while this perplexing lack of a conclusion is painful enough, Cook also includes his love-her-or-hate-her protagonist Pia Grazdani. For many readers, they have two reasons to dislike the book before it ever begins.

Grazdani first appeared in Cook's book Death Benefit, which was about a medical student who uncovers a murder disguised as a laboratory accident. She has a personality disorder that makes her mostly unlikeable. That is, she is mostly unlikeable, except to most male characters she encounters. They seem to be drawn to her cool aloofness like fruit flies to spilled soda.

Among the most afflicted by the smart Italian-Albanian medical-student-turned-researcher is George Wilson, who followed her around like a puppy dog in the first book. He still wants her to fall in love with him. She still rebuffs his advances.

Nano is a medical thriller that becomes Grazdani's latest puzzle box.

Being aloof with men who take an interest isn't Grazdani's only flaw. Once the stubborn and self-spoiled heroine suspects something is wrong, she can't let it go. It's what almost cost her life in Death Benefit and again in Nano.

In this case, a mystery presents itself at her dream job as a researcher working on the cutting edge of nanotechnology. While some people might disagree, this is one area where Cook gets it right. Most nanotechnology thrillers get carried away with the possibilities like Prey by Michael Crichton.

Cook mostly keeps it grounded. In this case, the Chinese aren't interested in one of nanos that deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells as much they are interested in increasing the efficiency of oxygen delivery within the blood stream, giving their athletes more of an edge in competitive sports. The premise isn't too far from the truth. Nano medicine could be tomorrow's equivalent of "doping."

In this way, Cook does a fine job introducing nano and its scale, which is no more than one-billionth of a meter long. Or, using Cook's borrowed government description: if the diameter of a marble was one nanometer, then the diameter of the Earth would be one meter. They are tiny. They are powerful.

Nanotechnology promises to change everything from stronger everyday objects to more creative applications like paint that can change colors. The possibilities are endless, especially in medicine. It is only a matter of time before nanotechnology tests our ethical limits. Cook, likewise, reminds us of worst case scenarios too — the field is largely not understood and unregulated. There is foresight to what might happen if certain kinds of nanos ever escaped.

Nano reads like a prequel to something much bigger.

Chances are had this book been released second as a prequel, instead of first as an introduction, it might have been better received. By then, readers would have already discovered a much more ruthless antagonist than the placeholder that her boss fills in Nano. Zach Berman wants to be the villain, but is limited because he becomes another Grazdani boy crush victim.

Likewise, there are other characters that allude to Cook's next book being better. Dr. Paul Caldwell, who likes Grazdani but is fortunately exempt from falling for her, brings in a much needed adult presence. And Grazdani's father, an Albanian mobster, helps the story shift into a badly needed higher gear.

Cook is widely credited with solidifying the medical thriller genre after the release of Coma in 1977. His own background is wildly diverse, setting up labs for Jacques Cousteau to serving aboard submarines in the South Pacific. He currently works and lives in Florida.

Nano By Robin Cook Moves 3.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Some people accuse Cook of becoming too formulaic in his approach. While themes of ethics and cutting edge medicine are decidedly important elements in any Cook novel, Nano isn't any more or less formulaic than any book. At times, the novel is maybe too playful for its good, making some characters seem especially dumb or naive. But the foundation of it, applied nanotechnology on the horizon, raises some interesting and entertaining questions along the way. Not his best, but better than reader ratings.

Nano is currently available from Amazon or you can order the novel at Barnes & Noble. The book can also be downloaded for iBooks or as an audiobook on iTunes. The latter is narrated by George Guidall. Incidentally, the audiobook receives better reviews than the book, partially because Guidall knows how to deliver the dialogue and make it more believable than our imaginations.
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