Volume 94 Issue 48 | p. 56 | Newscripts
Issue Date: December 5, 2016

Chemistry and pop culture collide in new novel and possible TV show

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: newscripts, books, fiction, television, CRISPR

“The Chemist” baffles with its use of science

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Not so thrilling thriller: The Newscripts gang read this so you don’t have to.
Credit: Little, Brown & Company
This image shows the cover of Stephenie Meyer’s book The Chemist, featuring a hypodermic needle on a gray background.
 
Not so thrilling thriller: The Newscripts gang read this so you don’t have to.
Credit: Little, Brown & Company

The Newscripts gang doesn’t do book reviews, but as a service to our readers, we read the new novel “The Chemist,” a 528-page thriller from Stephenie Meyer—the author who is probably best known for tapping into teen angst with her “Twilight” series of vampire romance books.

So will “The Chemist” give Meyer a following among scientists the way “Twilight” gained her legions of teenage fans? Probably not.

The titular character of the story is a female scientist named Alex on the lam from her former bosses at a small top-secret agency known only as “the department.” Early in the narrative we learn that Alex was recruited to the position after medical school, when the department offered her an expensively stocked lab and—here’s where readers must willingly suspend their disbelief—a seven-figure salary.

If you’re thinking that a medical degree doesn’t exactly a chemist make and that such a well-paid but secret job opening is suggestive that the work might be somewhat extrajudicial, then you’re right. When we meet Alex, she has somehow amassed a vast amount of knowledge of molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology, and many forms and uses of various poisons.

But her value to the department is based on Alex’s ability to use chemical concoctions to torture people and obtain national security information without leaving visible marks. When one project goes terribly off the rails, Alex learns that she is a target for assassination—because she knows too much.

The book mainly concerns itself with Alex’s efforts to evade her former employers while trying to figure out exactly who is trying to kill her, and why. Sadly, science gets short shrift in the story. Terms like “monoclonal antibodies” get dropped in, Mad Libs-style, without any connection to the plot. Similarly, a science-minded reader may wonder why Alex bemoans her loss of access to both a DNA sequencer and a polymerase chain reactor, or what DNA has to do with any of her activities.

At a climactic part of the story, we see Alex in action, using one of her unique preparations on a man who she’s told has information about a plot to release a deadly virus. Budding evil geniuses will be disappointed to learn that the concoction in question is lactic acid.

It is difficult to set aside these unintentional red herrings. But the writing picks up in the latter half, and though the details lack verisimilitude, Meyer’s Alex is almost convincing as a young female scientist trying to make it in the world.

Alex grew up knowing she wanted to be a scientist. Her skills and talents are frequently underestimated by rivals and enemies. Of course she learns to use this to her advantage, but it rankles her. She has a close relationship with her older mentor, but her rigorous lab schedule hampers her social life.

And her negative experiences with her institution’s administration—the people who keep hiring mob hit men to take her out—might feel like an apt, if exaggerated, comparison to any researcher who finds themselves treated like deadwood by their superiors.

JLo jumps on the CRISPR bandwagon

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Good genes or bad: Jennifer Lopez is developing a television show called CRISPR.
Credit: Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA/Newscom
This photo shows Jennifer Lopez singing at a concert.
 
Good genes or bad: Jennifer Lopez is developing a television show called CRISPR.
Credit: Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA/Newscom

Speaking of fictional female scientists who torture people, Newscripts readers should be warned that Jennifer Lopez’s production company and NBC are behind a potential TV series called CRISPR.

According to the Hollywood Reporter , JLo’s proposed show “is a procedural thriller set five minutes into the future that explores the next generation of terror: DNA hacking.” Each episode will be about a criminal bio-attack such as a genetic assassination attempt on the President. A CDC scientist and her FBI agent partner solve the cases.

The main antagonist for the series is the CDC scientist’s boss, a “diabolical genius with a twisted God complex.” What is it with bosses? Can’t they just take some time off?

One scientist behind the development of the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t ready to pan the idea quite yet. The online magazine Motherboard spoke with Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, to get her thoughts.

“CRISPR is powerful and profound technology that can help us positively impact human life,” Doudna told Motherboard. “It is important to introduce it to the public and characterize it correctly but we must remember that this show is dramatized science fiction.” No word on whether she’ll adopt the nickname JDo if the show is a runaway success.

 

Melody Bomgardnerwrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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