A thrilling read

A young woman gets up in the middle of the night sopping wet with sweat. Having been a type 1 diabetic since childhood, she knows what the problem is — she needs sugar and she needs it fast.

But as she starts to get up, the room begins to spin.

She cannot reach out to her cellphone.

As her situation begins to worsen, she wants to reach out to her fiancé George, sleeping next to her, but her hand seems to weigh a ton.

She cannot get a word out of her throat. George wakes up to the alarm on his cellphone, careful not to disturb his fiancée, and goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth, shave and shower.

When he comes out and tries to wake her up, he realises she is dead.

I have not come across a more chilling start to a thriller in a long time.

And it gets more gripping and intriguing with every page.

George, a radiology resident in Los Angeles, immerses himself in work, trying to get over the shock of his fiancée’s death.

He attends a seminar on a revolutionary medical application called iDoc being introduced by Amalgamated, the insurance behemoth.

The application is based on an idea which he had narrated to his attractive medical schoolmate, Paula, who is now evangelising the product as the marketing head of Amalgamated.

Running on smart phones, iDoc eliminates the need for visits to one’s personal physician.

It records all basic parameters, from temperature to the sugar level in the body, and suggests medication.

It even administers the required medication like insulin through a body implant based on real-time assessment of a patient’s need.

Around this time, a patient whose scans George has been checking, dies only a few days after his cancer was seen to have reappeared.

A few more troubling deaths arouse George’s suspicion. As it turns out, all these people succumbing to premature deaths, including his fiancée Casey, were part of iDoc’s beta testing.

Head of radiology at George’s hospital, Dr Clayton Hanson, who has been trying to pair George with attractive women, suggests a date with Debbie Waters, the stern but voluptuous administrative head of the hospital.

It turns out Clayton was using Debbie to keep a tab on George’s interest in the unnatural deaths and to find out how much and what his understudy knew.

George happened to know quite a bit by now — Casey’s death had given him a missionary zeal to find out the truth.

An unemployed hack living in George’s apartment complex had helped him to unearth some startling facts about iDoc.

Was iDoc deliberately programmed to kill patients?

Or, was the programme hacked — if so, by whom, for what purpose? Or, was it just a bug?

The hacker is killed in a car accident.

George gets arrested for initiating the hacking and after he gets out of the lock up on bail, things get more dangerous and violent for him.

George decides to take shelter in Paula’s luxurious house with fancy security infrastructure.

But, is he safe there?

Is Paula what she seems to be?

What makes Cell such a satisfying read is the philosophical and ethical questions on modern medical care that the book raises, which are as engaging as the thriller narrative.

How does a government or an insurance company paying for health care optimise and prioritise its outlay?

How justified is it to spend big bucks on the care of terminally patients considering their zero chance of survival and low quality of life during the treatment?

How do doctors view their profession as technology takes over so many functions that used to depend on the expertise of doctors.

At one point, as Paula and George are discussing the pros and cons of iDoc, you keep mentally switching from one point of view to the other, anxious to know who will win over the other.

Robin Cook, a master of medical thriller, gives you enough details of medical science and the world of health care, to get a feel of the world that characters like George, Paula and Clayton inhabit.

iDoc itself has been portrayed as a believable device, and by connecting it to the insurance industry, Obama’s Affordable Care Act and celebrity medical cases like Steve Jobs’s liver transplant, Cook makes Cell a creditable science fiction as well.

Cell is more full-bodied as fiction compared to many thrillers because of deft detailing of all characters and their relationships.

Even each of the patients dying prematurely come through as real characters whom you care for and remember as individuals.

And, in the end, you realise why the genre of medical thriller is so fascinating: After all, isn’t it a world where every moment one is dealing with issues of life and death?

Cell
Robin Cook
Macmillan
2014,
pp 400
Rs. 599


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