Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Satan Bug (by Alistair MacLean)

My rating: 8/10

I thought that my rating would be 9/10, but there are so many unbelievable things that I can't rate it any higher than 8/10. In this novel MacLean tries to explain some strange things later in the novel (more or less in a form of plot-twists), but some things made little sense to me or were tooo improbable.

What's especially annoying is the fact that the main character in the second half of the novel suffers from broken ribs and he still manages to do things that a healthy person would have trouble doing. MacLean reminds the reader about these broken ribs from time to time, but he himself forgets about them at other moments.

Overall the book is very gripping - about deadly viruses missing from a top secret microbiological research complex. The action starts on page 2 and lasts till the very end of the book.

The first 80 and the last 100 pages are superb with some memorable settings. Three scenes from the last part of the book has been imprinted in my memory and I remembered them VERY well, which is surprising, as I read this book for the last time around 15 years ago.

The middle 200 pages describe a kind of detective investigation carried out by the main character parallel to an official one. This part is done pretty well and there are numerous plot twists, but the action is a little slower than usual in MacLean's novels. But the first and the last part of the book make up for that.

Here are some spoiler-free quotes:

    '(…) You are not the first person to comment bitterly on the fact that this establishment, referred to in Parliamentary estimates as the Mordon Health Centre, is controlled exclusively by the War Office. You knew, of course, that Mordon is concerned mainly with the invention and production of microbiological organisms for use in war – but you are one of the few who know just how ghastly and terrifying are the weapons that have been perfected there, that armed with those weapons a few planes could utterly destroy all life in any country in the space of a few hours. (…)'

    Ferguson was back in ten minutes, fighting to restrain a wolf-like animal that lunged out madly at anyone who came near him. Rollo had a muzzle on but even that didn't make me feel too confident. I didn't need any persuasion to accept the sergeant's word that the dog was a killer.

    The gas-suit was tight and constricting, the closed circuit breathing apparatus cut into the back of my neck and the high concentration of oxygen made my mouth dry. Or maybe my mouth was dry anyway. Three cigarettes in the past twenty minutes – a normal day's quota for me, I preferred to take my slow poisoning in the form of a pipe – wouldn't have helped any either. I tried to think of one compelling reason why I shouldn't go through that door, but that didn't help either, there were so many compelling reasons that I couldn't pick and choose between them, so I didn't even bother trying. I made a last careful check of suit, mask and oxygen cylinders, but I was only kidding myself, this was about my fifth last careful check. Besides, they were all watching me. I had my pride. I started spelling out the combination on the heavy steel door.

    No need to switch on any lights – the laboratory was already brilliantly illuminated by shadowless neon lighting. Whoever had broken into that lab had either figured that the Government was a big enough firm to stand the waste of electricity or he'd had left in such tearing hurry that he'd had no time to think of lights.
    I'd no time to think of lights either. Nor had I the inclination. My sole and over-riding concern was with the immediate welfare of the tiny hamster inside the cage I was carrying.
    I placed the cage on the nearest bench, whipped off the cover and stared at the little animal. No bound man seated on a powder keg ever watched the last few minutes of sputtering fuse with half the mesmerised fascination, the totally-exclusive concentration with which I stared at that hamster. The starving cat with up-raised paw by the mouse-hole, the mongoose waiting for the king-cobra to strike, the ruined gambler watching the last roll of the dice – compared to me, they were asleep on the job. If ever the human eye had the power of transfixion, that hamster should have been skewered alive.
    Fifteen seconds, Gregori had said. Fifteen seconds only and if the deadly Satan Bug virus was present in the atmosphere of that lab the hamster would react. I counted of the seconds, each second a bell tolling toward eternity, and at exactly fifteen seconds the hamster twitched violently. Violently, but nothing compared to the way my heart behaved, a double somersault that seemed to take up all the space inside the chest wall, before settling down to an abnormally slow heavy thudding that seemed to shake my body with its every beat. Inside the rubber gloves the palms of my hands turned wet, ice-cold. My mouth was dry as last year's ashes.

(Sunday, 31 August 2014)

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