Monday, January 21, 2008

The Green Trap, by Ben Bova

"These little critters take in water and carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. That's how the oxygen we breathe got into the atmosphere."
...Cochrane stared at the stromatolites, going about their business of life as they had been for almost four billion years. The only sound in the greenhouse was the gurgling of the water washing over the rounded pebbles and slightly larger rocks. It was hot inside the glass walls. Cochrane took off his jacket, pulled his tie loose.
    And asked himself, Mike got himself killed over these microbes? There's got to be more to it than this.

Green. It can connote money, or the politics of ecology, or naïveté. Or it can mean simply the color of photosynthesis, from microscopic algae to the leaves high in the redwood.

In Ben Bova's thriller, The Green Trap, it means all four, wound together in a twisted, jinking braid that begins with the murder of a microbiological researcher named Michael Cochrane. Cochrane's brother Paul, an astrophysicist and a loner since the death of his wife several years before, is thrown without warning into a world of sexual and political intrigue.

Cochrane's initial goal is to find out who murdered his brother. But as he learns more about his brother's research into cyanobacteria, his purpose shifts gradually. Michael Cochrane's discovery could mean the end of dependence on foreign oil, the end of burning hydrocarbons for fuel — and the end of sky-high profits for Gould Energy Corporation and its competitors. Lionel Gould, the hard-driven principal of Gould Energy, is determined that he will control the new fuel source.

Gould certainly is behind the sinister Kensington, who may have murdered Paul Cochrane. There are other players: Elena Sandoval, a siren who has attached herself to Paul's search; Mitsuo Arashi, who may be competition for Sandoval; Zelinkshah Samil, a UNESCO official from Chechnya who has been pumping funds into Michael Cochrane's research. Paul Cochrane must decide who to trust as he makes his way through the maze of competing claims and offers.

Bova's novel plays heavily on green (as in political) theories of man-made global warming and drags in the old shibboleth of the cheap fuel suppressed by greedy oil barons. Even so, the story resonates; hydrocarbons are not a renewable resource, so they will run out some day, and current methods of producing a truly green fuel like hydrogen involve releasing even more carbon load into the atmosphere than direct burning of gasoline, diesel or ethanol fuels. The cyanobacteria Ben Bova posits offer a possible escape from the green trap our industrial society has walked into.

Once again, Bova has written an intriguing mix of politics, near-future science, and thrilling action. To quote Lionel Gould, "It's very good."