Fiction Reviews

Under A Blood Red Sky

(2004) Richard A.Collins, Authors On-line, ???, trd pbk, iv + 238 pp, ISBN 0-755-20154-X

I know that this may come a shock to some non-scientists and engineers but at some time or another (and more often than not when at college in the bar) there is contemplation by those of us in science and technology as to how easy it would be to apply this knowledge to acts of terrorism and wanton destruction. If you really want to look for weapons of mass destruction in the making (irrespective that they are never - or hardly ever - completed) then politicians need look no further than their neighbourhood university campus. That such knowledge is rarely (considering the millions of science-technology graduates globally each year) applied to what is labelled criminal terrorist activity has been a source of reassurance to me that perhaps humanity is all right. That the same is harnessed by virtually all nations' governments is a counterbalancing source of dismay and that some (who arguably should know better) apply this knowledge thoughtlessly causing suffering at times almost makes me give up on promoting SET. (I'm saved by the thought that ignorance never solved anything.)

One of the best ways to hit at a population without hitting the population itself is to attack its food supply. Our food supply, like us, is biological. Further, like our going through a planetary population boom, so are our food species. These factors combine to make our first-half 21st century food supply especially prone to biological attack. Witness the UK foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, the damage it did and the knock-on damage it did to the rural economy. It had multi-billion pound consequences.

In Under A Blood Red Sky such a deliberate and wanton act is carried out. Far eastern separatists from China's regime and Islamic extremists seek to draw attention to their cause with a bio-attack on the US ungulate food species using the foot-and-mouth virus. British virologist and epidemiologist Paul Caine works at the (presumably Research Council) Animal Health Institute. Lucky old him, he is off to give a key note paper at an international symposium in the US. Equally luckily, and improbably, he makes out with the symposium's hotel receptionist. However at the symposium a scientist is killed. Enter an attractive FBI agent - with whom Caine also eventually gets off - and a Chinese secret agent with whom he nearly gets off (yawn). Just as the symposium's delegates are free to leave following questioning, a possible foot and mouth outbreak is reported. Caine decides to stay on and manages to do so in a quasi-consultative and UK observer capacity. First that foot and mouth (FMD) is really the pathogen behind the outbreak needs to be confirmed? Then it needs to be ascertained whether this was a natural occurrence and if so where was the failure in the food system? A second outbreak takes place a couple of hundred miles away which ups the stakes for this being a deliberate or at least a human caused transmission. The race is on to find out what is spreading the virus so as to stop it. Then the FMD strain is identified which makes it virtually certain that there is a bioterrorist attack taking place and the race becomes a chase to find the perpetrators. And so seasoned scientist becomes apprentice sleuth...

I understand this to be Collins' first novel. And yes it is a little rough around the edges but no more so than that of others who have gone on to have produced fine works. Perhaps the editors could have been a bit firmer when going over the first few chapters, but Collins soon gets his writing pace. The characters - romance aside which I suspect is an attempt to make the scientist James Bond-ish (as in the films and which did not work for me) - are adequately portrayed for a standard thriller or even a work of SF where the concept dominates. Here the science is the saving grace as Collins (who is himself a molecular biologist) successfully conveys part of the feel of the career pressures a late twentieth / early twenty-first century scientist faces, as well as what goes on at a symposium. (Though the author might note that hotel display boards do have other uses than for symposium posters: the World does not revolve around scientists even if this book does.) The novel also demonstrates that a nation attempting to protect oneself against bio-attack (be it natural or from humans) absolutely has to have the scientific understanding on tap and ready to plug in (if you will forgive my mix of metaphors).

Yes, this is a techno-thriller and not SF, but the science element is so strong that it may very well appeal to those into hard SF. If you are one of these and are into thrillers then this is a book worth getting. This is most definitely so if you are one of that fairly rare breed of reader who is into scientific fiction (as distinct from out-and-out SF) by scientists.

Criticisms? Yes, one. Not against the author, as as a first outing Collins has acquitted himself reasonably well, but publishers. Why was this novel not picked up by a commercial imprint than Authors On-line, which is a self-publishing imprint hence only one up from a vanity press? Assuming Under A Blood Red Sky was run by a commercial thriller or techno-thriller editor, why was it rejected? It is not that bad, and for a first novel could arguably be said to be quite good. If the author has other plot outlines that benefit from his scientific knowledge that he can present to a commercial publisher then the man should be taken on and this book re-issued commercially while other stories are developed. (The book then might benefit from a semi-decent cover.) However if this is Collins' one book shot (they say everyone has at least one novel in them) then fine, project completed.

Jonathan Cowie

This review was originally commissioned by the journal Biologist and was published as a different, and shorter, review aimed at life scientist readers.

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