January 23, 2018


Friday, July 28, 2017

Big Bio is watching... and scheming

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald

There is scary stuff here — of more than one kind. Writer Roxana Tabakman handles it cannily both for thrills and, in passing, for raising awareness about such perils. This is natural material for a tingling film (or mini-series, if they want to get it all in). The perils may be divided into four principal kinds, plus several lesser ones, and you can tell how serious things are by the fact that a Mexican crime syndicate muscling into the action rates as one of the smaller worries.

One worry you needn’t have is that what follows will reveal too much of the plot. It’s carefully worded to avoid that. And Tabakman has plot twists up her sleeve that aren’t even alluded to here.

The title, Biovigilados, translates as “(People) Under Biovigilance.” One of the novel’s main subjects is public health. Two of the big dangers aired in the text correspond to that area. The first deals with certain matters of genetic research and of the blending of bodies with machinery (as with pacemakers, though the story prefers newer gadgets). The other is that a person, frustrated by academic and governmental approval procedures in this area, can spring an unauthorised “something” into the world anyway.

Before moving onto the remaining two major perils highlighted by the book, an instance may be brought up of the latter situation already having taken place. It’s interesting to know, and it’s not referenced in Biovigilados. A US doctor, John Leal, is credited with the first-ever chlorination of an entire city’s water, in 1908. Seldom is it mentioned that when Leal poured chlorine into the Jersey City reservoirs, he did so, as a recent TV science series put it, “in almost complete secrecy, without any permission from government authorities (and no notice to the general public).” Okay, on that occasion, at least, the result was positive.

Next: both an individual and an international organisation are seen monitoring people’s lives in minute detail using biological data (hence the title). The theme here is surveillance. It’s worse than we thought, or it can be. Tabakman says all the technology she works into the story either exists or will in the next five years.

And fourth: the information obtained from the surveillance is used to manipulate popular information, fears and desires in ever more sophisticated and better hidden ways. The subject now is persuasion — and it’s perhaps the scariest aspect of all.

The punchline is that the people involved in all the above actions are the good guys, sort of, in the story.

Tabakman is a much-travelled Argentine biologist with green eyes. The heroine she has devised for her story is a country-hopping Argentine biologist with green eyes. Otherwise the author is very imaginative. Equally importantly, she knows both the strengths and the weak points of the sort of people and research institutions she puts into her tale. And despite her scientific training, she doesn’t forget, as many people who are basically rational do, that not everyone acts or reacts to things that way.

The petri dish in which a novel such as this is brewed is obviously the climate of (well-grounded) paranoia in the world. When a similar phenomenon was observed in fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, fear of Soviet-style Communism was seen acting behind it. Today the same background role may be played by Islamist terrorism. Tabakman’s story, however, is particularly nice to the general Muslim community.

It’s strange that a character here, pondering different courses of action in reference to a danger that nobody in authority wants to hear about, never even considers going to the media with it, as many whistleblowers do. Credulity is strained when a scientist doesn’t think the removal of certain materials will be noticed, and further when two quite unrelated characters turn out to be not so at all. (Still, amazing coincidences do sometimes happen in life.)

Among minor glitches (e.g., a procedentes for a precedentes, an “under their radar” when the opposite, “on their radar,” was intended), the second mention of “Miles” on p. 355 is confusing: replace by “Ken.”

A little irony. Who knows what the death toll may yet be from the medical hazards this novel deals with; but so far tobacco, which the author’s name alludes to and which she of course isn’t responsible for, has probably killed more people than anything else, including war.

I’ve long been pointing to the biosciences as an area of strength in Argentina. Now an instance of it has arisen in an unexpected form — that of this page-turner.

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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia