GENEWATCH
 
BOOK REVIEW: 'HOMEGROWN'
By Andrew D. Thibedeau
 
I.

In the words of late literary critic Dorothy Parker, Cialan Haasnic's new book, Homegrown: The Terror Within "is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." With the literary merit of a summer blockbuster, Haasnic's novel unfolds in a series of unimaginative clichés and stilted subplots-ultimately predictable despite its pretense to complexity. The novel is what literary critic Dough Davis has termed a "narrative of mass destruction," with a plot "extrapolated from the 9/11 attacks and visual and narrative detail that possess a high degree of technological and geopolitical verisimilitude." What in the parlance of popular culture would most likely be called a "thriller," Haasnic's work fits best within the subgenre of political science fiction. Ironically, the novel's ultimate failing is how it undermines both the political and scientific public discourse from which it draws its content.

Haasnic's plot-strung together across four hundred pages, ninety eight chapters, yet only one dimension of character development-centers on Meredith Statter, the book's "reluctant" heroine. The reader first encounters Meredith at a low point in her career as a mathematical genius, having recently been dismissed from her teaching position at the University of California. A curious choice on the part of the University, as Meredith had just derived a "Theory of Everything"-a set of equations that, when properly fed into an adequate number of supercomputers, could predict with absolute certainty anything from the winner of the next presidential election to what she will eat for breakfast the day after winning the race. Meredith's theory is even able to predict with deadly accuracy when and where otherwise unpredictable events-bioterrorist attacks, for example-will occur. Nifty stuff-especially when the government arrives at her door desperate to improve its track record in terrorism prediction.

At the urging of Paul Hopkins, a "world-weary" government agent who nevertheless "retained his boyish quality," Meredith agrees to train her mathematical crystal ball on the shadowy enemies of the Homeland. With an oversized budget and broad authority at their disposal, Meredith and Paul quickly populate an abandoned California warehouse with supercomputers and begin their quest to accurately predict future "human activity and behavior"-an ambitious goal that Meredith nevertheless estimates is at most a few months away. Their timing could not have been more perfectly choreographed, for at exactly the same time a murky constellation of ill-intentioned actors began to slowly tilt into alignment. Calling themselves the Guardians of Patriotism-the "GOP" for short-this loose alliance of semiautonomous villains each set to work upon their portion of their ultimate scheme: simultaneous chemical, biological, and cyber attacks on major US cities-and one private estate in the Santa Barbara hills, where the President's daughter was due to take her wedding vows. The ultimate rational guiding the GOP's treasonous machinations lay in this final target: where one vial, one canister, one crate slipped quietly past security would easily decimate the First Family and their powerful guests, dealing a fatal blow to the US government.

To these sinister ends, the GOP carefully planned, developed, and tested a revolutionary bioweapon. This weapon consisted of two parts: a genetically-engineered pathogen of gruesome lethality and a mercilessly efficient delivery mechanism. The first component of their depraved dynamo was created in the basement of a successful but misanthropic urologist in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. Once a promising researcher specializing in infectious diseases, the distractingly-named Dr. Paine followed his heart-and his future ex-wife-into mundane medical practice instead. The failure of his marriage, the success of his practice, and his growing bitterness over the life they both denied him eventually lead Dr. Paine to build a Level 4 biohazard laboratory in his basement. There, through trial and error, he eventually succeeded in creating a "superbug" of truly apocalyptic potential in a process that merged the most lethal features of bacterial pathogens with the virulence of viral infection. All the while assuring himself of his sanity, Dr. Paine coveted what his ancestor Thomas Paine had described as the "power to begin the world over again."

The second half of the GOP bioweapon, the delivery system that would provide the crucial connection between Dr. Paine's contagion and its intended victims, had been simultaneously developed by a character who, for most of the novel, Haasnic refers to only as "the mosquito man." Elsewhere in the novel, Meredith correctly explains to Paul that "[m]osquitoes are the deadliest disease carriers on the planet." Taking his cue from Nature herself, in the solitude of his orchid nursery in the California hills, the mosquito man produced a hardy breed of mosquitoes whose thirst for blood would be an ideal delivery "vector," swarming in deadly stealth until the pathogen had done its wicked work.

While this illusive figure is eventually identified, by the latter quarter of the book the untidily-woven subplots leave the reader wondering precisely how he achieved his creation. Dr. Paine was an associate of the mosquito man, and thus genetic engineering may have had a hand in it. At one point the text describes the mosquitoes as "bioengineered," while elsewhere Haasnic explains that the insects' life cycle had been "reduced through breeding." However he accomplished his task, the mosquito man succeeded in creating a tenacious and quick-hatching breed of vampiric insects.

II.

Haasnic's novel is a "narrative of mass destruction," situated at the intersection of the post-9/11 popular discourses of the biosciences and terrorism. It portrays a world where an apocalypse can be brewed in a basement, where complex webs of conspiracy connect otherwise interchangeable villains, each equipped with the means, motive, and opportunity to enact terror on a national scale. The world Haasnic creates-one indistinguishable from the bulk of "biothrillers" on bookshelves todayis more than mere entertainment. The fear and anxiety this biothriller injects into popular culture both draws attention away from real health risks, and strengthens the ideologies that have allowed the US government to enact "strategies of preemptive war and homeland defense."

The leading causes of death in the US today are cancer and heart disease, not viral infection (natural or otherwise). Nevertheless, "narratives about superbugs still remain popular subjects for media attention." Haasnic's narrative and others like it - products of popular demand markets - "manipulate the symbolic and literal threat [of disease] as well as the attendant panic out of all proportion." Since the early twentieth century, popular culture has embraced disease narratives as a commodity-something to be popularized, advertized, and sold. In the process, "epidemic entertainments popularized disease templates that inevitably skewed public discourses about disease . . . [and] laid the foundation for the modern culture of fear."

The truth is that suburban urologists like Dr. Paine do not breed super-plague in their basements. There are no shadowy figures like the mosquito man, quietly biding their time among us while their villainous, genetically engineered plans take root. These characters belong to science fiction, but in the cultural context of the early twentyfirst century they seem as real as global nuclear war appeared to a previous generation. Haasnic's novel about the "war-on-terror-to-come blur[s] the distinction between fiction and fact by conflating them" in the domain of the speculative. As such, it becomes more than science fiction: it becomes politics.

In his argument for the Iraq war, former President Bush warned the nation that it would only take "one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." This story also belongs to science fiction; however, deployed by President Bush as a kind of strategic fiction, it succeeded in generating the desired fear and panic that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq. Science fiction in the form of narratives of mass destruction has become a political trope, "dramatizing for a mass audience the newly threatening character of the world and the terrifying future."

At its best, science fiction offers "a world made strange in some creative, useful way." It is "the imaginative inhabitation of new possibilities" that gives science fiction its "vigor and power." The power of science fiction's "world made strange" lies in its ability to access what twentieth- century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called "the metaphorical notion of truth." Metaphorical truth "is a question of the reader the reader suspending, or bracketing off, their judgment regarding the literal truth of the proposition," and in so doing the text "opens up new possibilities" through "an imaginative and creative act."

By manipulating public fear to achieve commercial popularity, narratives of mass destruction such as Haasnic's Homegrown have the opposite effect: they narrow possibilities and limit imagination. Real health risks like cancer and cardiovascular disease will be ignored because images of genetically-engineered super-plague demand the gaze of popular culture. Thousands will continue to die because politicians legitimize "defense" strategy with tales of terror indistinguishable from those found in novels. It is for these dire reasons that Haasnic's novel should not be tossed aside lightly. It and the genre of mass destruction narratives of which it partakes should be resisted with great force.

Andrew D. Thibedeau, J.D., is a Fellow with the Council for Responsible Genetics.

 

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