Petroplague by Amy Rogers: A Book Review

Dr. Amy Rogers

Dr. Amy Rogers

Neil, a disaffected eco-activist, meets an explosives expert at 2:00am.  They drive to a deserted gas station in south-central LA.

Christina Gonzales, a PHD student at UCLA, volunteers at the La Brea tar pits.  After monstrous gas bubbles burst over the tar, Christina and her co-worker smell vinegar, which doesn’t make any sense.

An elderly woman spots a huge puddle of “drain cleaner” in the alley behind her house.  She blames the neighbors and calls the police because this could injure her cats.  A moment later, explosions rock the entire block.

Christina learns that an apparent methane explosion at a deserted gas station has ruined her PHD project, an attempt to use genetically altered bacteria to break down heavy crude oil into easy-to-harvest natural gas.

If you think these events are coincidence, you have probably never watched a disaster film.  Like the best movies in the genre, or the novels of Stephen King, Amy Rogers takes a mixed group of people, with their individual hopes, plans, secrets, and strengths, and puts them in an impossible situation.  By the time I had read this far, I was hooked.  From here, Petroplague just gets better and better – meaning the tribulations of Rogers’s characters get worse and worse.

Imagine Los Angeles, or the largest car-dependant megalopolis you know.  Imagine a mutant bacteria in the underground oil supply and the local refineries that breaks down hydrocarbons, reducing petroleum  into acetic acid and highly flammable hydrogen, among other things.  Cars stall on the freeway.  Airplanes fall from the sky.  The acid corrodes gas tanks and lines, releasing hydrogen that the smallest spark can ignite.  Nothing that runs on gasoline moves:  no firetrucks or ambulances or police cruisers.  No food deliveries or garbage pickups.  The looting begins.  Instability under the Santa Monica fault leads to bigger and bigger earthquakes.  The La Brea Tar Pits “erupt.”   When Christina and her PHD supervisor discover an antidote for the plague, both an eco-terrorist network and ruthless corporate interests are willing to go to any lengths to suppress it.

Are you scared yet?  If not, as Yoda told Luke, You will be!  Because this is just the beginning.  Now that we care about Christina, the real chills and thrills begin.  Eco-terrorists smuggle the petroplague out of the LA quarantine area and plot to release it worldwide in a matter of days.  Christina and her allies face virtually every danger you can think of as LA spins into chaos – and some you can’t.  Think of all the seat gripping you do watching James Cameron movies like,  The Terminator and Titanic.  This is what Amy Rogers does; she throws the good guys into a tight situation and keeps cranking up the pressure.

I read lots of thriller/action adventure stories.  When you become familiar with a genre, you begin to recognize conventions and trends.  As anyone who has glanced at this week’s movie listings can attest, epidemics are a standard disaster scenario, but as far as I know, Rogers’s story question is unique – what would happen in our oil-dependant world if a petroleum-destroying plague got loose?

A lot of books in this genre suffer from forgettable heroes and two-dimensional villains.  Psychopaths are a dime a dozen these days, but not in Petroplague.  Several of the bad guys are idealists-gone-wrong, sometimes-conflicted fanatics of conscience, who you cannot hate even as you cringe at their actions.  One of the evil-doers is a corporate higher-up, willing to screw anyone or everyone in the name of profit.  Even if that is a stereotype, it is not hard to imagine in our post-economic meltdown world.

We bond with the heroes of the story because they are very human, even as events evoke courage they didn’t know they had.  When Christina first learns of the plague, all she can think of is her ruined dissertation, but her circle of concern and her actions rapidly grow beyond self-interest.  Her cousin, River, and River’s boyfriend, Mickey, are ready to run when things get tough – but they don’t.  A politician who survived a helicopter crash in Iraq, finds the courage to pilot another chopper filled with fuel that might have been compromised by the plague.

It’s always a pleasure to post here about a book I really enjoyed.  I couldn’t put this one down.  I urge you to stop by Amy Rogers’s web site to learn more about the author and the various formats in which you can read Petroplague.

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